Strike sparks Clearwater house fire

Lightning hit a tree. The energy ran through the ground into a house. Two occupants escaped.

By KAMEEL STANLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 2, 2007

CLEARWATER - After an already rough day at work, Eileen Pearson wanted nothing more than a good night's sleep Tuesday.

But the boom of one of Florida's famous thunderstorms - and the blare of smoke alarms seconds later - jolted the 55-year-old out of her bed at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday.

It took only seconds for Pearson to realize her house was on fire.

"You could feel the lightning hit," she said. "It was that loud. It was scary."

Pearson ran to wake her tenant, who lives on the opposite side of the 3,800-square-foot house at 203 Glenwood Ave. N.

The nightgown-clad pair escaped without injury, only to see flames in the attached, two-car garage.

The early morning fire was caused by an indirect lightning strike, officials determined.

"It hit a tree, traveled through the ground and hit the house," said Elizabeth Daly-Watts, public information officer for the Clearwater Fire Department.

Firefighters had the flames out in 20 minutes. Daly-Watts credited Pearson with quick thinking for shutting the garage door, preventing the blaze from spreading to the rest of the house.

Still, officials estimated about $10,000 in damage was done to the garage and the home's electrical circuits and wiring.

Thirty minutes after help arrived at Pearson's house, firefighters from Largo were called to a second residential fire.

Pinellas County sheriff's deputies are investigating the 5 a.m. blaze at 138 Melody Lane, a vacant home used as a rental property.

It is unclear what caused the fire at the yellow single story home.

A neighbor reported seeing flickering and smoke just after two lightning strikes, said sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda.

A damage estimate was not available, but Barreda said the kitchen bore the brunt of the blaze.

Efforts to reach the property owner were unsuccessful.

Sitting in a lawn chair a few feet away from her charred garage Wednesday afternoon, a calm Pearson shrugged at the thought of the cleanup facing her.

She counted herself lucky that, save for a few melted Christmas decorations and burned books, her house was still intact.

"I've already had a hard life, so I'm used to picking myself up," she said. "What more can you do? You just move on."

Pearson, who works as a sales associate in Home Depot's garden section, said the small fire doesn't compare to other obstacles she's faced in life.

Fifteen years ago, she said, her 18-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver.

In 1983, the first house she bought in Clearwater also got hit by a bolt of lightning.

"This one is another test from God," she said.

The potential for lightning strikes is just one more thing for people to be aware of, Daly-Watts said.

"It's definitely a possibility," she said. "It's a problem we face, just like hurricanes, in this area."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or 727 445-4158.