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Property owners ignore officials' pleas to evacuate

With wildfires yards away, they dig fire lines and soak their houses.

By MELANIE AVE
Published May 11, 2007


WALDO -- With a red, white and blue bandana covering his nose, Joseph Starling Jr. took a stand late Thursday to remain with his mobile home, his bulldogs and his pigs -- despite the wildfire flaring up a few hundred yards away.

"I got my family out of here, but I'm staying right here," Starling, 34, declared as a helicopter dropped buckets of water on the fire and Pinellas County firefighters guarded five homes with their hoses and trucks on rural land near the blazing Santa Fe Swamp.

"It's hot and heavy," Safety Harbor Deputy Chief Joe Accetta yelled as smoke plumes billowed hundreds of feet into the air from the thick stand of towering pine.

Thursday was a day of tension for many homeowners near the fire, who soaked their property with sprinklers, walked around with masks covering their faces and used their tractors to dig fire lines in the dirt around their property.

Starling was just one of hundreds of residents in Alachua, Bradford and Clay counties who were urged to evacuate their homes but refused. Some wanted to stamp out flying debris that could burn their homes and others did not want to leave their animals.

Starling said he thought his home would be protected by pasture separating it from the pine-laden, 16,000-acre swamp that caught fire Monday, then reignited Thursday after gusty winds blew in from Subtropical Depression Andrea.

"It'll be all right," Starling said.

His neighbor, Pamela Eiseman, 43, packed her black Saturn with food, a computer, photos and her nervous 5-year-old daughter, Laci.

They were prepared to leave at any time should the fire come their way.

"What can you do?" Eiseman asked. "It's been like this for three days."

Bradford County emergency management director Brian Johns compared people like Starling to those who live in coastal communities and refuse to leave when a hurricane bears down.

"They think they can protect their homes with garden hoses," he said. "My thought is, they have not seen a fire of this magnitude.

"When it burns that close and you hear it roaring, you cannot protect it with a garden hose."

Farther south, in the small town of Keystone Heights, many residents remained on edge, fearing the south-moving winds could blow flames into hundreds of homes there.

The fire came within 1,500 feet of Millard Pate's three-bedroom brick home on Little Santa Fe Lake.

A sprinkler rained water down on the roof Thursday.

Pate wanted to protect his home, one of his biggest investments, the place where he and his wife hope to spend their retirement.

But Pate said he would not risk his life. Should the fire triumph over his home, he plans to jump into his boat or kayak and paddle into the lake.

"It's pretty tense," said Pate, 55, an information technology worker. "It's moment by moment."

Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.