Suncoast more like smoke coast

As a front blew smoke from fires in southern Georgia and eastern Florida our way Tuesday, children and those with lung conditions took extra precautions.

Published May 9, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - Al Collum is no stranger to smoke.

For 27 years, the 70-year-old Spring Hill resident was a firefighter in New Jersey. And an unabashed two-pack-a-day smoker, he had already enjoyed a few cigarettes - non-filters, thank you - before stopping for gas at a 7-Eleven on Cortez Boulevard late Tuesday morning.

Like other Tampa Bay residents, Collum awoke to a hazy skyline, a thin film of white on his car and the scent of campfire in his nostrils as he began his day.

A strong weather front had driven dense smoke from wildfires burning in south Georgia and in Florida counties to the east of Hernando, like Volusia and Flagler, across the state.

The smoke is expected to clear by today.

"I'm sure this is no good for people with lung problems, " Collum said, while tightening the cap of his vehicle's gas tank. Just before 11 a.m., the scent of fire overpowered the smell of gasoline at the station.

"They shouldn't be out, " he said. "I hope people realize that."

Throughout the day, county emergency management and fire officials cautioned residents with respiratory ailments like asthma to stay indoors and keep windows and doors shut. Hernando school officials also told principals to keep students inside, noting that ash was in the air.

The smoke was another opportunity to remind residents that there is a ban on burning in effect as well.

According to county fire officials, concerned resident made multiple calls to find out what was happening.

Early Tuesday morning, engines and firefighters from Hernando County were also sent to assist those in Flagler County. Along with five firefighters and an engine from Spring Hill Fire Rescue, another engine and three men were also sent from the city of Brooksville, said Hernando fire Chief Mike Nickerson, who is also the county coordinator in charge of mobilizing emergency fire resources.

The Hernando forces were combined with three units from Citrus County when the call for assistance was made late Monday afternoon, Nickerson said.

Along with the curious callers, Hernando fire officials expected to be busy responding to other calls related to the smoke.

Spring Hill Fire crews responded to an alarm triggered by smoke in the ventilation system at the UHL Plaza, near County Line Road and U.S. 19, said Chief J.J. Morrison. That was around 8:30 a.m., before people were in the building, he said.

"It's hard to believe fires in Georgia and fires over in Daytona can produce this much smoke in our area, " Morrison said. "But this morning when I came out to my car, it was covered in ash."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.