tampabay.com

Wind could strengthen wildfires

By JAMAL THALJI
Published May 14, 2007


LAKE CITY - Even as the Bugaboo Fire churned and burned acres and acres of Florida wildlands, the news was still pretty good Sunday.

No thundershowers, which meant no lightning or wind gusts. No drop in humidity. Even the on-again, off-again closures of Interstates 75 and 10 didn't lead to more gridlock.

For the first time in days, firefighting aircraft were allowed up to scout the fire's progress. Emergency officials estimate that the blaze is 30 percent contained, and firefighters continued to strengthen fire lines along the blaze's dangerous western flank.

So why is everyone so worried?

Because a new day brings a new forecast. Today's calls for stronger winds - exactly what firefighters don't need.

"We're holding our breath, " said Columbia County Emergency Management spokesman Harvey Campbell.

Today will be a critical day in the fight, emergency officials say.

Humidity is expected to remain high, but wind speeds are expected to pick up, from a calm 5 mph breeze this weekend to 15- to 25-mph gusts.

"This is a predominantly wind-driven fire, " said National Weather Service meteorologist Tony Edwards. "So the wind is a concern."

Thundershowers are still a possibility, which would bring welcome rain but also the potential for lightning and increased winds. That could make it too dangerous for firefighters to continue building up fire lines to contain the blaze that has consumed about 102, 000 acres of Florida landscape and sent smoke as far as the Tampa Bay area.

It is by far the largest and most worrisome of the 218 fires that have burned 190, 000 acres across the state.

The fire raged out of control on Thursday, threatening Lake City itself. It won't take much for it to do so again.

"The weather is going to test some of our lines, " said Florida Division of Forestry incident commander Sonny Greene. "(Today) is going to be a critical day for us."

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As the sun set Saturday, Strike Team 10 started its assignment: protect the homes deep in the woods off Thomas Camp Road through 8 a.m. Sunday.

The group of Pinellas County firefighters and fire engines from Largo, Pinellas Park, Pinellas Suncoast, Seminole, South Pasadena, St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach and Tarpon Springs drove along the closed U.S. 441, heading for the forest.

This had the potential to be a dangerous assignment, as the firefighters had to prepare to protect the homes from the approaching fire, and the controlled burns set ahead of it to starve the beast of its fuel.

Or it could be really boring; basically, a stakeout with fire trucks.

Suddenly the smooth pavement underneath their tires disappeared, replaced by miles of dirt road.

"Did you ever think you'd see a fire truck drive on this?" asked St. Pete Beach Fire Chief Fred Golliner.

Like fire companies from across the state, these structural firefighters answered the call to help.

When the firefighters reached Saw Grass Glen, Donny and Teresa Griffin greeted them with coffee and deer sausage on their massive front yard. When the wildfires of '98 burned just yards away, the couple refused to budge.

They intend to stick it out again, up to a point.

"When the fire department says they can't deal with it, " Teresa Griffin said, "that's when we'll go."

After talking to the Griffins, the Largo firefighters waited and watched as the controlled burn glowed orange in the distance, then died down.

Sunday morning, Strike Team 10 was sent home. It had done its part.

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It was a different story on the fire's southwest side, where Division Bravo Bravo struggled on Sunday afternoon to contain a slow-moving blaze 12 miles north of Deer Creek.

The humidity dipped and the winds picked up, just enough to help the flames jump a fire line, undoing hours of work by fire crews.

Their mission now: keep the fire from jumping the dirt road and igniting the thicket of trees on the other side.

"We worked all night on this to keep it from (jumping) into this timber, " said Florida Division of Forestry Division Supervisor Jamie Rittenhouse. "Obviously it didn't work."

Off in the distance, tractor-trailers leave behind a trail of dust. Massive bulldozers climb down from the rigs and plow their way into the forest, sending trees crashing to the ground.

They're building a new, bigger fire line, plowing away anything that can burn, that can fuel the approaching fire. And if they fail?

"Then we lose everything we've worked hard for the last couple of days, " Rittenhouse said. "It's off to the races again."

Fast Facts:

The Bugaboo Fire

Traffic: North Central Florida's main traffic arteries are still a concern as Interstates 75 and 10 were opened and closed repeatedly on Sunday. The Florida Highway Patrol is imploring motorists to stay off these key highways because visibility can hit zero pretty quickly thanks to the smoke and fog.

Evacuees: Columbia County is still under a state of emergency, but the county's lone shelter was closed Sunday. The handful of evacuees were given Red Cross housing vouchers, while others were headed to stay with family or friends. About 150 homes and 570 county residents were evacuated from U.S. 441 north to I-10 and the Georgia border.

Temporary access: Columbia County Sheriff Bill Gootee said some evacuees are being temporarily let back in. "We're allowing some back in to check on their cattle, their dogs, their cats and get medication, " he said.