tampabay.com

Fires shift with wind

THE LATEST: The blaze is 50 percent contained but flare-ups are still a worry. ON THE HORIZON: Strong gusts may force hundreds more to evacuate today.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published May 15, 2007


LAKE CITY - The firefighters battling the Bugaboo fire know it's one of the worst in Florida's recent history.

But Monday evening they stared down a new foe: the worst fears of Columbia County residents.

"We were hoping to come and spread good tidings, " said U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Quesinberry.

He couldn't, not with a sudden breach that afternoon of the southwestern fire line along the Osceola National Forest, just a few miles west of populated U.S. 441 N.

Blame the weather, which turned against firefighters after cooperating all weekend. Strong wind gusts most likely caused the breach, and weather conditions won't get any better today.

"New winds are coming, " said National Weather Service meteorologist Tony Edwards. "(Today) brings us another challenge. It will dry up and heat up."

The massive fire has consumed 108, 000 acres, blanketed North Central Florida and even the Tampa Bay area with thick smoke and could still threaten Lake City. Poor visibility has repeatedly closed Interstates 10 and 75.

Officials convened the town hall meeting Monday so those in charge of the emergency could explain to those most affected exactly what was going on. Hundreds attended with questions about the fire, evacuations and shelters, everyone trying to sift fact from rumor.

"It was sobering information, " said Lake City Council member Eugene Jefferson.

Especially this: If the fire reaches predetermined "trigger points, " which could happen today, authorities would scramble to evacuate hundreds more residents. Three hundred to 500 already have been asked to leave their homes along U.S. 441.

Firefighters on the ground and in the air raced to the breach. Helicopters were dumping thousands of gallons of foam ahead of the fire to keep it from the highway.

"We're trying to take the steam out of it so it doesn't hit the road, " said Florida Division of Forestry incident commander Sonny Greene.

"Jesus, " someone muttered in the audience.

* * *

Humans have been working hard to save other humans from the fire. Sunday morning, they helped save some animals too.

Firefighters discovered an injured black bear, her paws badly blistered, guarding her cub along a fire line near Sand Hill Road. Mom was on the ground. The cub was 65 feet in the air.

"Of course the cub picked the tallest tree to climb, " said Karen Parker of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A bear capture team was quickly put together. They had no problem tranquilizing the mother. Saving the cub was the problem.

A bulldozer cleared the ground around the tree, then a bucket truck was brought out. They fired a tranquilizing dart, and wildlife officers caught the cub with an outstretched tarp when she fell to the ground.

Both were taken to the University of Florida Veterinary School. The cub is 3 months old and underweight -- just 7 pounds - but doing well.

"It's the momma we're worried about, " Parker said.

Momma is 18 years old, has lung damage and is in guarded condition. Turns out scientists had once been tracking the bear.

Does momma have a name?

"215, " Parker said.

* * *

Ever since firefighters showed up on her front yard Thursday evening, Karen Hilgerson, her children, her grandchildren and her dogs have called the Days Inn off Interstate 10 home.

She doesn't need newspapers, TV or the Internet to get her information. She just goes to the twice-a-day news conferences next to the motel.

She gets information from neighbors and friends too. She'd rather not, though.

"You talk to one person and they make it seem like your house is in ashes, " she said. "You talk to the next person and your house is okay."

She had to book another day at the hotel Monday. That left her with just $11.

"And I still haven't made my car payment, " she said.

Officials reopened the Columbia High School shelter Monday. She'll talk to the Red Cross about what to do next.

At least Monday she worked a shift at Ruppert's Bakery and Cafe in downtown Lake City.

"It helps not to think about it sometimes, " she said.

Then her 19-year-old daughter Amber Tran chimed in. "Yeah, until she calls someone and says 'Have you heard any news?' "

* * *

In the end, the firefighters at the meeting got a standing ovation. But one evacuated resident's frustration boiled over.

Donald Thomas, 59, said he used to be a forest ranger. He took the microphone and asked the fire commanders why they didn't use machines to log the forest and starve the fire of fuel.

Afterward, Quesinberry said that just wouldn't work. Humans and machines could never keep up with a fast-moving fire, he said.

But that wasn't good enough for Thomas. He questioned whether the commanders knew what they were doing. "You got to be knowin' what you're doin', " Thomas told the audience.

A few applauded. Most did not.

Fast Facts:

 

No smoke in bay area forecast

The bay area appears headed for a smoke-free week. Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Ruskin expect winds to shift to the northeast and blanket the northern Panhandle. But don't exhale too soon. "That doesn't mean other fires can't start, " forecaster Tom Dougherty said. "There's a whole lot of smaller fires in Florida, but we won't have that widespread area of smoke like we did a couple of times last week."

Wildfire update

236 Total fires burning as of Monday evening

165, 741 Number of acres burned

2, 349 Number of fires statewide since Jan. 1, burning 322, 848 acres

On the Web

For the latest on the wildfires and video from Lake City, visit state.tampabay.com.