With state ablaze, crews answer call

Published May 10, 2007

THERESSA - The firefighting community swept into action Wednesday, leaving behind worried spouses, their children's baseball games and sweet, sweet sleep.

Dozens from around the state came to help their exhausted colleagues battle a monstrous 18, 000-acre wildfire that stretched across rural parts of Bradford and Alachua counties just south of Starke.

About 10 Pinellas County firefighters left Tuesday for Alachua, where they helped contain a 300-acre swamp fire. They joined four others from Hillsborough County and two from Pasco County who took on a small corner of the monster fire as it licked at 50 houses early Wednesday and filled the air with smoke.

They were part of a force of about 135 - about half of which came from cities like Orlando, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach.

Bradford County emergency services director Nelson Green said homes would have burned were it not for the outside help.

"The brotherhood of firefighting has come together for us, " said locksmith Rusty Sullivan, 39, the assistant chief of the Theressa volunteer fire department. By late Wednesday, the fire was 35 percent contained.

The fires in Bradford and Alachua counties were a few of the roughly 220 plaguing the parched state from the Panhandle to the Everglades.

Dozens of roads around the state have been temporarily closed, including a 7-mile stretch of Florida's Turnpike in Osceola County. A huge blaze in Collier County shut down part of Interstate 75. More than 1, 000 people have been evacuated, though the fires have destroyed only a few buildings.

"The smoke that I have seen is incredible, " said Gov. Charlie Crist, after touring between Jacksonville and Gainesville by helicopter. "The thing that is incredible to me is how quickly it got so big."

The Florida National Guard has been flying two Black Hawk helicopters from Brooksville to northwest Florida, dropping more than 100, 000 gallons of water since Saturday.

The guard expects to borrow more Black Hawks from other Southern states and have six flying by today.

'Just doing our jobs'

Back in Bradford County, Sullivan stood inside the Hope Baptist Church on Wednesday evening, his eyes watery, his face dirty. He was running on three hours of sleep in the last 48 hours. He was happy for the relief from the Tampa Bay area firefighters.

"I just can't express in words how grateful I am, " he said.

Safety Harbor Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Joe Accetta said his team arrived near Waldo about 2 p.m. and was immediately put to work on an 80-acre fire.

On Wednesday, after a brief sleep at a Gainesville Holiday Inn, he listened as trees fell in the distance and small fires sprouted near Susan Carpenter's 40-acre cattle ranch. Several firefighters kept an eye on the fires, about seven feet away.

"Our thanks goes out to these guys, " she said, worry lines fresh on her face. "They put themselves in danger to save other people's lives."

"We're just doing our jobs, " Accetta replied.

"It's a job I'm thankful you have, " Carpenter said.

David Smolenski, 36, a firefighter-paramedic with Oldsmar Fire Rescue, watched as crews with the Florida Division of Forestry cut paths through the dirt, creating a barrier against the flames.

"These guys are out here, " he said. "Why shouldn't we be out here? You're only as big as your neighbor. If we needed help, they'd help us."

Volunteers pitch in

A few miles to the northwest, Wayne Henderson, 60, stood in the middle of the two-lane country road, staring at the smouldering edges of the huge fire.

Bitter smoke turned the sky and trees into a surreal black and white scene.

He pointed to a small patch of flames that licked at the charred trunks of cypress and pine. Ashes fell gracefully from the sky, as the wind whipped smoke from one direction, then another.

That patch of flames, he knew, could lead to an even bigger fire.

That patch of flames could burn someone's house.

Or kill someone.

"Frank! Here!" he shouted to his Hillsborough County Fire Rescue partner, Frank Hagen, 60, who stood with his hose atop Engine 34, ready to blast 3, 500 gallons of water.

As the water drained the fire's life, Henderson gave a thumbs up. This is why he came.

"I've seen wildfires in Hillsborough, " Henderson said, "but not of this magnitude."

Volunteers served the firefighters meals and water throughout the day at the church command post.

Outside, Capt. Gary Policastri, 40, a captain with Pasco County Fire Rescue, sat in his truck talking about the two kids at home he hasn't seen since Saturday and his son's baseball game.

He was unsure when he would be home again.

But there were no regrets.

"Every day I work at the fire station and we run calls, " he said. "Seventy percent of the people don't need us. This is different. Society needs us here. This is the whole reason we became firefighters right here."

Times staff writer Steve Nohlgren contributed to this report, which includes information from the Florida Times-Union and Orlando Sentinel. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

Florida's big fires

Florida's division of forestry reported that 220 wildfires were burning 80,000 acres across Florida Wednesday. Ten of those were causing the biggest headaches.

1. Walton County: 1,00 acres near Bruce.

2. Bradford County: Three fast-moving fires merged into one 16,000- to 18,000- acre blaze.

3. Alachua County: 3,000 acres about 15 miles Northeast of Gainsville.

4. Volusia County: 6,800 acres Southwest of Ormond Beach.

5. Lake County: 850 acres between Eustis and Deland.

6. Lake County: 1,000 acres three miles Southeast of Cassia.

7. Glades County: 600 acres 16 miles Northwest of La Belle.

8. Lee County: 1,187 acres Southeast of Fort Myers.

9. Collier County: 948 acres 35 miles Southeast of Naples in the Big Cypress National Reserve.

10. Collier County: 16,000 acres 12 miles East of Naples.