County endures, yearns for breath of fresh air

Published May 12, 2007

PORT RICHEY - Dustin Merrill stood on the grass along U.S. 19 Friday morning, his orange work vest barely visible in the foggy haze.

Merrill, part of a crew from Highway Safety Devices in Tampa, was supposed to install power boxes along the busy highway Friday morning. Then the electrical foreman's boss called.

"He's letting us off the job because of the smoke, " said Merrill, 28, while packing up his truck. "They're saying go ahead and go. This smoke is just annoying."

That sentiment echoed around Pasco on Friday. In a repeat of Tuesday's smelly air, smoke from raging wildfires in northeastern counties saturated the sky.

As they did on Tuesday, some Pasco schools moved outdoor activities indoors on Friday, and the county health department again encouraged people to stay indoors.

Depending on how bad the air quality was, each school's officials decided whether to move students in portable classrooms indoors, said Tammy Rabon, school district spokeswoman.

Elsewhere in the county, people woke up Friday to find ash on their cars. Some battled allergic reactions. And with visibility as low as half a mile in some parts of Pasco, some motorists drove with their headlights on.

With no chance of a heavy thunderstorm in sight, the smoke may continue to linger over the next few days, said Bryan Mroczka, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.

"The large-scale flow is counterclockwise, dragging the smoke toward the (west) coast, " he said. "Those wildfires to the north are still burning very strong. Not much of them are contained because they're burning in areas that are very inaccessible ... to say when you'll be in and out of the smoke is difficult."

But the brush fires won't put a damper on weekend events.

The Cotee River Seafood Fest in New Port Richey is scheduled to go on as planned.

And the 16th Annual Mother's Day Native American Pow Wow at Withlacoochee River Park east of Dade City is also on schedule, with one stipulation: no wood fires on the ground, and only charcoal grills are allowed, said Sam Scarborough, park manager.

Even so, on Friday, some grew tired of the thick haze clouding the sky.

Anderson Combs of Port Richey woke up Friday to find ash all over his vehicles. The trim carpenter didn't find the air any better as he worked at a construction site for new offices on Rowan Road north of Trouble Creek in southwest Pasco.

"My contacts are messed up. My sinuses are killing me, " said Combs, 35, who worked without a mask applying trim around window and door openings.

He said he's never seen anything like the ashen air that blew in on Friday. Not even during the 1998 wildfires that burned 500, 000 acres and caused $300-million in damage.

"It was nothing like this, " he said.

County officials sent word to the 76 employees working outdoors on Friday to drink water and step inside buildings if they didn't feel well, said Marty Paventi, Pasco's parks and recreation manager.

Most county workers had buildings to step into if things got too bad outside, said Terry Falke, facilities manager. Even so, visibility was limited for the county's lawn maintenance crew and electricians.

"I couldn't tell if it was a quarter-mile or a half-mile in front of me, " Falke said.

Outside in the morning haze, Jake Simon adjusted gas prices at the Lil' Champ gas station on Embassy Boulevard.

"It feels like you have to breathe a little harder than usual, " he said. "But it doesn't bother me. I've gotten used to it."

At a produce and vegetable stand off Little Road north of County Road 54, the smoke sullied the air normally sweetened by melons.

A filter mask failed Simon Govas, 53, so he called his sister for a bandanna to wet and wrap around his face. Co-worker Francis Repicky, 58, went without.

Even though Govas smokes cigarettes, he said the smoky air was too much for him.

"On Tuesday, I went home and I felt like I smoked 10 packs of cigarettes for cripe sakes, " Govas said.

Their only hope for fresh air was Mother Nature.

"I hope they get some rain, " Repicky said.

Staff writers Barbara Fredricksen and Chuin-Wei Yap contributed to this story.