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Putnam County brush fires investigated as arson

Rain Thursday created more smoke, but quieted fire

PALATKA, Fla. – Firefighters got help from Mother Nature Thursday, as rain help subdue the 75-acre brush fire believed to have been intentionally set on Wednesday.

The fire burning southwest of Palatka was being investigated as arson, according to Putnam County officials.

Florida Forest Service said three 5-acre brush fires spanning State Road 19 south of Peniel Road in Palatka about 2 p.m. merged into one 75-acre fire and forced the Florida Highway Patrol to close the road at West Pinellas Street for hours. It reopened about 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Forestry workers returning Thursday morning to monitor the fire got a break from hours of steady rain that quieted the flames, but produced a considerable amount of smoke. A Florida Forestry spokeswoman said that the fire remains 80 percent contained.

"This fire has been determined to be arson and what we're asking for is the public's help," said Quin Romay, Putnam County's chief of emergency services. 

The Florida Forestry Service sent four units to the scene, along with nine Putnam Fire Rescue units on Wednesday. A helicopter was also sent to help. They said there are plenty of ponds and small streams in the area that have vegetation on top of them, and the fire is sparking the vegetation and burning on top of the water.

"We can't get to a lot of places," Forestry area supervisor Jason Foshee said.

"Our tractors get stuck going down in some ponds, so we're just having a rough time working our way around the wet area," Forshee said.

Forestry said people often hang out in the woods and they use the area to socialize and drive four-wheelers. Residents had been warned to be on the lookout for fire activity.

"Police had an alert on the phone a couple nights ago," said Nancy Raby, who has lived in the area for 35 years. "It said fires are being set in this area and for us to be on alert for anything suspicious."

The FHP is encouraging motorists in the area to exercise caution, especially overnight and in the early morning hours, reducing speed and using low-beam headlines due to the smoke and reduced visibility.

Since February, there have been nine fires in or near the same area as Wednesday's fire. 

Residents who have seen any suspicious activity in the area are asked to call 1-888-277-8477.