Winds may give area a breather

Forecasters expect a break from the terrible air conditions.

Published May 12, 2007

It was the strangest of days, forecasters admit.

People awoke to mostly clear skies Friday morning. But sometime after 9 a.m., smoke suddenly enveloped the Tampa Bay region, swallowing up views of the water, blanketing car hoods with ash, making everyone smell like summer camp.

On a satellite picture, National Weather Service forecaster Tom Dougherty watched a low pressure system funnel the smoke through a tight corridor from the burning regions of Georgia and North Florida to Tampa Bay, where it spread out.

The air quality in St. Petersburg and parts of Hillsborough County was the worst in the state and some of the worst ever recorded in the area, according to the state Division of Air Resource Management. It was even worse than areas much closer to the fires.

"I cannot ever recall us having a significant event like this," said Clemente Lopez, a field operations manager for Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission.

While this area was hard hit, smoke from dozens of fires stretched the state's entire 447 miles, from the Panhandle to the Keys, Dougherty said.

Forecasters expect a wind shift to blow the smoke in the Tampa Bay area to the east coast this afternoon, giving the region a reprieve for the next few days. But they emphasized that local variables can affect wind speed and direction.

A predicted reprieve was a relief to organizers of Tropical Heatwave, a 33-band Ybor City music festival expected to draw between 5,000 and 6,000 today.

"It's looking good for Heatwave," said Randy Wynne, program director of community radio station WMNF-FM 88.5, which hosts the event.

Not so for other events.

The SunTrust Miles for Moffitt run and walk was canceled. The Stetson University College of Law moved its graduation ceremonies from the Gulfport campus to the Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg.

The iconic Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa put a ballroom on standby in case ash and smoke crash the six outdoor weddings slated to take place today.

Smoky disruptions

Like snowstorms in Denver, smoke became an act-of-God event around here Friday, closing offices, postponing events, creating delays.

Plant High School in Tampa moved its annual senior picnic to the cafeteria. Hillsborough County nixed outside physical education classes. Tampa's port closed to large commercial ship traffic as visibility decreased to a quarter-mile or less. Tarpon Springs City Hall closed. So did the Florida Aquarium's outdoor restaurant.

A Southwest Airlines flight from Nashville detoured to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport when Tampa International Airport traffic controllers couldn't see the landing gear.

An Allegiant Air flight from Toledo couldn't make it to Orlando and stopped at St. Petersburg-Clearwater, too.

The smoke was so thick it set off a fire alarm at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tampa and a Spring Hill office complex. Don Finnegan, manager of Big Joe's Muffler Brake City in Tampa, warned that if conditions kept up for a week, people would have to replace their air filters.

"It takes a lot to plug an air filter," he said. "It is pretty nasty out there."

Three hours into a relay walk from New Port Richey to Clearwater, 100 nurses celebrating National Nurse's Week stopped 7 miles in and began questioning each other like they do patients, looking for signs of smoke inhalation.

"As we headed south it got thicker," said Terry Karfonta, a nurse at Morton Plant Rehabilitation Center in Clearwater. "It was kind of like a smoldering campfire."

Warnings heeded

Hospitals reported few patients complaining about breathing, and health departments said it appeared people with respiratory conditions have heeded warnings to stay inside.

Unfortunately for the waiters at outdoor restaurants, customers did, too. Fourteen patio tables at Bellabrava trattoria in downtown St. Petersburg stood vacant during lunch, flecked with ash.

It was bad for business for many on St. Petersburg's Central Avenue except Central Cigars, which employs six smoke eater machines to suck down fumes.

"The joke is people are coming in out of the smoke to smoke, " owner Owen Richason said.

Times staff writers Chandra Broadwater, Steve Huettel, Letitia Stein, Alisa Ulferts, Jonathan Abel and Mark Albright contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.