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    It's perfect muck fire weather

    Drought and cold combine to make things ideal for the smelly, blinding, dangerous, stubborn underground blazes.

    [Times photo: Mike Pease]
    Lutz volunteer firefighters Jayson Willman, left, and John Saunders douse hot spots in a muck fire. The smoke and fog led to accidents and closure of U.S. 41.

    By AMY HERDY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 6, 2001


    TAMPA -- The fire had been smoldering near their home for more than a day when Karen Lillibridge and her daughter Emma began to fret.

    "Should we get the cat?" Lillibridge recalls her 7-year-old asking as a wall of acrid smoke crept toward their Lake Stemper home in Lutz.

    The cause of their concern is a muck fire caused when compost beneath the surface soil begins to burn.

    Fire officials say the drought has combined with the recent cold snap and low humidity to provide the perfect conditions for muck fires. If the area does not have significant rainfall, they say, this spring could bring the worst fire threat in recent history.

    "We certainly are gearing up for the battle," said Erin Albury, a supervisor in the state Division of Forestry.

    Early Friday, parts of U.S. 41 were closed after several vehicles collided in the smoky conditions created by the fire and the cold air that kept the smoke close the ground. Motorists could barely see beyond their hoods.

    "It was pea-soup thick," said Gordon Brown, a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy. No one was seriously hurt.

    However, two people were badly injured Friday morning on State Road 39 in one of several accidents in east Pasco blamed on smoky conditions caused by a muck fire.

    [Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
    A Hillsborough County firefighter talks with the driver of a truck on County Line Road just east of Zephyrhills Friday morning. Fire officials say the extremely dry conditions could mean trouble this spring unless there is significant rainfall.

    The cold weather, said Pinellas forest ranger Patrick Dwyer, takes the moisture out of plants, turning them into kindling that only needs a spark to ignite.

    In the Lutz fire, officials think bottle rockets shot off Wednesday afternoon began the muck fire that has burned steadily in the five acres of swampy land adjacent to Lake Stemper off Cypress Cove Lane.

    Some surface leaves caught fire from the fireworks, Dwyer said, becoming "blowy leaf fuel" that smoldered its way beneath the surface.

    Since the muck fire is not what officials call "a clean burn," but one that is aided by decomposed organic matter, the smoke, well, really smells.

    "In my house, in the middle of the night, it was hard to breathe," Lillibridge said. "I thought, oh my God, pack, we gotta go!"

    Despite the worrisome smoke, Dwyer said, the muck fire does not pose a threat to local residents as it is contained by natural fire walls hacked out of the woods by firefighters. Still, it continues to smolder.

    Hillsborough firefighters and Lutz volunteer firefighters have been working since Wednesday night to saturate the fire, Dwyer said, but are hindered by several factors. The spongy ground cannot support firefighting equipment, forcing fire crews to slowly work their way in on foot, hand-pulling water lines and carrying equipment.

    "It was nasty," Jayson Willman, a Lutz volunteer firefighter said of working the muck fire Wednesday. "We were just putting out hot spots all day."

    In addition to being odorous, the resulting thick blanket of smoke makes visibility poor, and as the roots of the swamp's cypress trees burn, the trees topple over, putting firefighters at risk.

    Dwyer expects crews to be working in Lutz for two weeks, he said. He's said he wants to find the people responsible for starting the fire.

    "I'm sure it was accidental, but the point is they set the woods on fire," Dwyer said, "costing at least $1,000" in manpower and equipment every day.

    Officials have little hope there's any relief in sight across the area.

    "We've been feeling the effects now (of the drought) since spring '98," said Albury, the state forestry official. "We have 10 fires right now in the district (of Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Lake and Sumpter counties) that we are either fighting or monitoring."

    Officials ask that people avoid outdoor burning.

    In Hernando, Fire Rescue Chief Mike Nickerson said he plans to ask county commissioners next week to adopt an ordinance that would let them forbid all outdoor burning by resolution, rather than by emergency ordinance, thus removing the need of a public hearing before enacting a ban.

    In Citrus, the dry conditions have been blamed for daily brush fires, thought there is no current ban on outdoor burning.

    - Staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Bill Varian contributed to this report.

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