Breath-taking haze

Far-away wildfires and an ill-wind blanket west-central Florida under a layer of smoke.

Published May 9, 2007

The smoke crept in through the windows of Joanne Johnson's St. Petersburg home about 4 a.m. Tuesday, setting off a scare-you-out-of-bed fire alarm.

For Spring Hill resident Valentina Bass, the smoke triggered a throbbing sinus headache.

"It's disgusting," said Marina Casanelles, 34, of St. Petersburg as she walked her dogs to a park early Tuesday, enveloped by a cloud that smelled like burning leaves.

Early Tuesday, a thick smoky haze from southern Georgia and northern Florida wildfires pushed south and hung from the sky throughout much of the day like a giant gray umbrella, from Hernando County south to Sarasota County, encompassing most of Pinellas and Hillsborough.

The haze is expected to continue today but to clear by afternoon as the temperatures rise and the winds shift from northeast to the northwest, said Ryan Sharp, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

A small chance of rain is expected Thursday and again Saturday locally, offering a potential wet break from Florida's dry season. A large low-pressure system off the Georgia coast, in the Atlantic Ocean, is expected to bring some rain to North Florida.

Officials said conditions across the state are critical, with humidity at dangerously low levels inland and winds gusting over 20 mph. Hundreds of residents are on standby to evacuate, and Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency last week.

At an afternoon briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Crist urged residents to act carefully under the dry conditions and adhere to the outdoor burn ban issued Tuesday.

"Make sure that if you have cigarette butts, dispose of them responsibly," Crist said. "Firecrackers, you should not be utilizing them. Barbecues, you shouldn't be doing them. Be careful, be careful, be careful."

The Tampa Bay area faces a 4-inch rain deficit. Normally, 10 inches have fallen by this time of the year, but forecasters have only recorded 6 inches.

"It's not the driest," said Sharp, of the weather service, "but it is concerning since we have so many wildfires."

Late Tuesday, about 210 wildfires blazed through about 43,500 acres - from Pensacola south to Broward County.

The fires ranged from one-tenth of an acre up to 16,000 acres. Jim Harrell with the Florida Division of Forestry said most were between 1 and 25 acres.

So far, no injuries have been reported though one home was destroyed in Collier County and five homes were destroyed and 13 damaged in Walton County.

The Florida Division of Forestry said 1,950 fires since January have consumed about 200,000 acres - normally the average for the entire year.

No fires were reported in Pinellas County. But in Hillsborough on Tuesday, county Fire Rescue units contained a 40-acre brush fire at Walter Hunter and Virgil Hall roads.

Some firefighters from both counties headed north to help battle the blazes. State officials said firefighters and forestry officials were assisting from as far away as South Carolina and Texas.

"Right now," Harrell said, "we're stretched thin."

Throughout the Tampa Bay area, eyes watered and throats ached from the seemingly inescapable smell that penetrated homes, buildings, even clothing.

School districts in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough canceled outdoor physical education classes to keep children from inhaling the smoke. Many outdoor sporting events, including the state high school fast-pitch softball tournament in Plant City, were postponed until today.

At Sand Elementary in Wesley Chapel, children held their shirts and hands over their noses as they walked to and from class.

"I don't want smoke to get in my lungs," Sand Pine second-grader Joseph Perrotta explained.

Jonathan Browne, 51, a London real estate manager, sat outside a downtown St. Petersburg Starbucks coffee shop on the last day of an otherwise exquisite seven-day vacation.

"It's quite a strange phenomenon," he said. "This is not something you see in London."

Though many people were bothered by the gloomy skies and choking odor, there were a rare few who found it refreshing.

"It's the greatest smell in the world," said Rick Cianci of Brooksville. "It's like a campfire in the woods."

By midmorning Tuesday, visibility at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa was only a half-mile.

Dick Kamp, a hydro-meteorological technician with the National Weather Service, said smoke from the wildfires in southeast Georgia and near Gainesville floated to the Gulf of Mexico late Monday afternoon, pushed by north and northeastern winds.

The smoke slipped farther south by sunrise Tuesday, becoming trapped by the cooler temperatures on the surface.

"It's sort of like a lid that traps anything underneath," Kamp said. "It just holds it down to the ground."

The smell remained throughout the evening Tuesday, but most of the haze had disappeared.

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello, Asjylyn Loder, Jeff Solochek, Michael Mohammed, Chandra Broadwater, Amanda Palleschi, Joey Knight, Steve Huettel and Jim Thorner contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or 727 893-8813.

Q&A / Smoke and fire 

How bad are the wildfires in Florida?

On Tuesday, there were about 210 active wildfires across the state, according to the Florida Division of Forestry. Officials estimate those fires have scorched at least 43, 500 acres. Since Jan. 1, 200, 000 acres have burned, equal to the average for a full year.

Were smoke alarms triggered?

Yes. Residents and businesses throughout the area reported false fire alarms.

What do you do if the smoke makes it hard to breathe?

Stay indoors as much as possible. Keep windows and doors closed, if possible. Turn on the air conditioner, but close the fresh-air intake and keep the filter clean to prevent outdoor air from getting in. Do not use anything that burns - candles, fireplaces or gas stoves. Do not vacuum, which stirs up particles. You may also call your doctor and ask about increasing your dosage of respiratory medications.

Does a paper air mask help?

Not likely. Paper, or dust masks, are usually designed to trap large particles such as sawdust. They will not protect your lungs from smoke.

Is the air harmful to pets?

Yes, says Dr. Jim Lutz of Largo Veterinary Hospital. If your animals have asthma, heart problems or allergies, they should stay indoors.

Is it going to rain soon?

The National Weather Service in Ruskin expects some rain Thursday and again Saturday. But the chance is only 20 percent. The rainy season does not typically begin in Florida until late May or early June. Wildfire season ends May 30, in time for the start of the six-month hurricane season.

What part of Florida is driest?

Land stretching east from Tampa to Cape Canaveral and south.

How dry is the Tampa Bay area?

Rainfall has totalled 6 inches since January, 4 inches below normal.

Melanie Ave, Times staff writer

Fast Facts:

Tips for dealing with smoke

- If it is smoky outside, avoid prolonged outdoor activities. Limit time spent outdoors for children and persons with medical conditions.

- If you have an air conditioner, stay indoors to help reduce exposure to smoke. Keep the A/C's fresh air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside. For best results, run the air conditioning with recirculated air.

- People who do not have an air conditioner should consider spending time in areas such as shopping malls and public libraries. Staying inside a house without air conditioning with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather.

- If you feel you are experiencing adverse health affects, contact a physician for an evaluation or advice.