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Wildfire chars 1,200 acres

Almost all of Citrus County's volunteer fire departments helped fight the blaze, which began Thursday afternoon on a dry lake bed in the southeastern part of the county.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2001


FLORAL CITY -- You know it's dry when . . .

A wildfire grows to 1,200 acres in a swamp.

And you know you're in Citrus County when a fire can build to that size without seriously threatening any homes.

Dozens of firefighters battled the fire that began Thursday afternoon and grew from roughly 100 acres at nightfall to nearly 1,200 acres by Friday evening. The fire was concentrated roughly along the former shores of parched Lake Tsala Apopka in southeastern Citrus.

"If you would have come out here in the winter of 1998, you probably would have needed a snorkel to stand up out there," said Erin Albury, forest area supervisor for the state Division of Forestry.

Some 15 homeowners in the Withlapopka Isles were asked to voluntarily evacuate, though none took up the offer to seek refuge at a shelter opened at Floral City United Methodist Church. The shelter closed about 10 p.m. Thursday without takers.

Residents of another 356 homes were notified of the blaze, and firefighters' efforts to suppress it through the night, by a new automated emergency messaging system.

"It was an informational message just reassuring people that firefighters would be in the area," said Patty Jefferson, a spokeswoman for the Citrus County Public Safety Department.

Curious onlookers gathered on bridges in and near the area to monitor the fire. Most appeared to stay put and go about their business Friday. The Public Safety Department stationed two brush trucks and a large engine truck overnight to put out hot spots and generally provide residents with a modicum of security.

"The firemen put a truck in our yard all night," said Robert Nestlerod of 10964 E Cod Drive, a retiree who was among those asked to consider evacuating. "We did not find it necessary to evacuate, for the firemen were there and they were doing their job excellently."

One minor injury was reported when a forestry firefighter scratched an eye on a tree branch and was taken to Citrus Memorial Hospital Friday afternoon. Nearly every volunteer fire department in Citrus County was represented in the fight. Those that weren't directly involved helped cover calls while the others were occupied.

"For a group of volunteers, they put their hearts in it," said William Fancher, a retiree who lives at 5959 S Marlin Drive, near where the fire started. He was among those who stuck it out. "Our road was filled with concerned people and passers-by alike."

State investigators believe the fire was caused by sparks from an old pickup seen driving through former lakebed near Marlin shortly before the fire started. Investigators were still speaking to the occupants of the pickup and no citations had been issued by late Friday.

Thick columns of black smoke were visible from downtown Inverness, more than 10 miles away, late Thursday afternoon and early Friday. The black pillars formed with each new patch of dry sawgrass that ignited, muting to a blue-gray as the grass burned off.

"You'd think it was a hundred tires burning, it was burning so black," Albury said.

Firefighters concentrated their efforts on securing a perimeter around homes, trying more to contain the fire than to douse it. They ignited grass and dug trenches in the potential paths of the blaze to rob it of fuel. By Friday afternoon, they had it somewhat corraled.

Strong winds actually came to the aid of firefighters, pushing flames back from the southwesterly path they had traveled overnight, back to already scorched land.

By Friday morning, it was mostly business as usual, said Jim Collette, farm manager of Ferris Groves, west of where the fire burned hottest. The blaze had briefly threatened the groves, but firefighters swooped in to add trenches, and a canal ringing the orange groves provided another barrier.

"Today it was just a slow burn," Collette said.

The area of the fire is blue on most Citrus County maps, but hasn't held water for some time. Recent rains may have left some water soaking the soil just beneath the surface, keeping scorched areas from smoldering, Albury said.

But the blaze nevertheless underscores the need for people to obey a ban on burning now in place, said Public Safety Director Charles Poliseno.

"Our office is fielding a lot of angry phone calls from people asking why we won't lift the burn ban," Poliseno said. "This is why."

- Citrus Times correspondent Trevor Jones contributed to this report.

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