Wildfire Smoke, Fog Causes Traffic Accidents in Florida

Lightning strikes could possibly spark more flames in areas of Florida where wildfires have consumed more than 8,000 acres and destroyed three homes in New Smyrna Beach, officials and forecasters said Tuesday.

A quarter-inch of rain brought little relief to firefighters battling about 50 wildfires in parched central Florida on Tuesday, and smoke from the blazes was blamed for auto accidents that killed four people.

Three homes and several outdoor structures have been destroyed so far in the fires that started April 21, but no homes were in immediate danger Tuesday.

"That rain is going to be dried up — we didn't get much," said Timber Weller, a specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry. "By the end of today, most of that water will have evaporated between the sun and the winds."

"We still have significant wildfire conditions and need a tremendous amount of rain to get back to normal levels," New Smyrna Beach spokeswoman Shannon Lewis said Tuesday.

"We haven't had any good rain for months ... we sure hope to get some for us pretty soon," added New Smyrna Beach Mayor James Vandergrifft.

The fire was about 70 percent contained early Tuesday, but authorities warned it was far from under control. Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

Smoke from wildfires in Volusia and Brevard counties cleared up enough Tuesday for parts of Interstate 95 to reopen to traffic. Thick black smoke mixed with morning fog caused dozens of car accidents. Two people died and 19 passengers on a bus were injured in four crashes on Monday.

Parts of Interstate 95 and the BeachLine Expressway, which runs from Orlando to the Atlantic coast, will be closed to morning traffic until further notice, officials said.

"There's a lot of fuel all the way around the edge of this fire. If the wind changes, you can have fire again, fast," said Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson.

President Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on Tuesday reminded residents not to throw out cigarette butts with wildfires blazing across the state.

Officials at Fire Station 28 in Sun City Center near Tampa briefed the Bush brothers on the dry, windy conditions that were contributing to about 50 wildfires across the state, including one in the area that was believed to have been started by a spark from a utility line. The brothers then came outside, where dark smoke from one fire could be seen in the distant sky, to talk to reporters.

"Obviously the people need to be real careful, careful about starting fires, be careful about not throwing used cigarettes out," the president said. "They need to be mindful that these are dangerous conditions."

Jeb Bush, also noted that tossing a cigarette butt is a felony in the state.

"We want to make sure that no fires are started because of human error or negligence or malfeasance," he said.

About 1,000 residents were ordered to evacuate Sunday in New Smyrna Beach as the fire approached. Some residents had been allowed to return to their homes on Monday night, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Vandergrifft told FOX News on Tuesday that evacuations in New Smyrna Beach are over and schools are in session. I-95 was closed early Tuesday morning because of heavy fog and smoke.

"Primarily, we're lucky in our area" that the fire only threatened one 915-home subdivision, of which three homes were lost, Vandergrifft said. "W did manage to save all the rest of them so it was a good thing," he added.

Avia Toney was one of the residents allowed to return. She was relieved Monday to find her house had been spared. She fled the neighborhood only when she saw fire approaching through the woods across a nearby golf course.

"It was right at the edge of the woods," she said. "Ashes were falling. It was black and ugly."

Neighbor Mary Bradfield took her cat, Betsy, to safety at a friend's house, but her husband Dick refused to evacuate.

"I didn't want to lose my home," he said Monday. "If it got really dangerous, I would have left."

Officials are tracking about 50 active wildfires throughout the water-parched state, including blazes just south of Daytona Beach that have destroyed three homes and shut down stretches of I-95. State officials believe many of the fires likely started with either human negligence or malevolence.

In Brevard County, all brush fire activity is within the fire lines and there is no threat to structures, county officials said Tuesday, although there is still a significant threat for flare up. The overall fire operation is considered to be 10 percent contained and approximately 6,400 acres have been consumed, officials said.

The governor declared a state of emergency Monday night, deploying aviation units from the Florida National Guard. He also met with some of the 155 firefighters working to contain a fire in New Smyrna Beach that has consumed about 1,300 acres since Sunday and destroyed three homes.

"We are a tinder box right now," said Gov. Bush. "We had a little bit of rain but not enough to give people assurances that we are not going to have more fires."

More than 2,200 wildfires have burned over 44,000 acres in Florida since Jan. 1, according to the state Division of Forestry.

"These fires are consuming everything," said Jim Brenner, the division's fire management administrator. "And it's not over by any stretch of the imagination."

Though portions of I-95 had reopened, smoke could shut it down again if the fires flare up, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kim Miller said.

I-95 is a prime target because, The Orlando Sentinel reports, while much of Central and South Florida is very dry to begin with, the corridor along that highway in Volusia and Brevard counties has been particularly parched during the past few months.

Winter and early-spring winds often blow from the west across the Sunshine State, and as those winds get drier, they leave little moisture for East-Central Florida, particularly the coastal areas, according to Deborah Hanley, a forecaster of the Division of Forestry in Tallahassee. The combination of the dryness and upcoming storms propelled by sea breezes makes for a dangerously vulnerable coastal region.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.