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Man charged in Polk wildfire

Authorities say a former volunteer firefighter allowed his backyard blaze to get out of control, causing the fire.

By CRAIG PITTMAN and LANE DEGREGORY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001


POLK CITY -- A lot of people who don't know Cubert Wayne Masters are mad at him, all because he tried to burn some weeds in his back yard last week.

The former volunteer firefighter let the backyard blaze get away, igniting the parched Green Swamp. The resulting wildfire has scorched about 10,000 acres of rural Polk County.

On Tuesday, the Polk County State Attorney's Office charged Masters with three misdemeanors alleging he failed to obtain a burn permit, failed to supply equipment to control his fire and burned land recklessly.

More than 150 firefighters have spent five days battling the flames, which forced evacuations and closed Interstate 4. None of the 200 homes in the path of the fire have been lost, and no injuries have been reported.

The fire is approximately 70 percent contained by fire line but is days away from being out, authorities said Wednesday. The interstate, which connects Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach, will be closed at least through the weekend.

For his role in the fire, Masters could face a maximum of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine, said Assistant State Attorney Chip Thullbery. Restitution also could be steep. Officials estimate it is costing $150,000 a day for all the firefighters and helicopters.

His wife and neighbors say Masters is already paying a high price physically, financially and emotionally for what he did.

State investigators have been swamped with angry calls, said Maj. Lou Leinhauser of the Department of Agriculture's law enforcement unit, which handled the case.

Callers were upset because closing I-4 kept them from visiting Disney World or the Daytona 500, not to mention the expense of fighting the fire and the risk it has posed to life and property.

Masters, 46, has not been arrested but will be sent a summons to appear in court. He would not talk to a reporter who visited his one-story home on a dead-end dirt road in rural Polk County. His wife, Donna Williams, contended Masters was not entirely at fault. She said the state Division of Forestry should share some of the responsibility for failing to halt the fire's spread the day it began.

"He knows he's got some punishment coming, and he's willing to take it," she said, "but he doesn't feel like he should be blamed for the whole thing."

His next-door neighbor agrees.

"Wayne Masters should get some penalties for burning," said Teresa Solar, 45. "What he did was stupid. But some of the stuff the fire department did caused it to spread. They created just as much fire as he did. . . . They could have contained this. It was just as much the fire department as him."

Now a truck driver, Masters is a former lieutenant with the Lakeland Volunteer Fire Department, she said. He was burning some duckweed in the sandy area around their pond last Thursday afternoon, she said, not canceled checks as early reports indicated.

Investigators say the wind was blowing at up to 14 mph that day, and despite the dry conditions and his own firefighting experience, Masters had failed to apply for a burn permit. But his wife said he had the fire under control until he tossed some highly flammable pine needles on the pile. That's when it got away, she said.

Masters tried to fight the spreading blaze with a hose, she said, but to no avail. Five days later, plumes of smoke and ankle-high flames were still rising in the woods near Masters' home.

Neighbors said Masters worked so hard trying to protect their homes that he burned his face. Judy Hancock, 54, said it "looks like you dropped him on a paved road and pulled his face across it."

She contended that Masters "saved our lives" by wetting down trees near their house, and this week he paid to install sprinklers on the neighbors' roofs, fences and dog pens to protect them from sparks.

"He's not sleeping," said neighbor Joan Bucci, 47. "He's not eating. . . . He's been out there all the time with sprinklers and hoses, offering to lend people his tractor. He's a very nice man. He made a mistake. He didn't mean to."

Neighbors said they do not hold him responsible for what happened. "He's already beating himself up over this," Mrs. Hancock said. "It isn't fair. They're crucifying him. This wasn't through any neglect of his."

Actually yes it was, said Maj. Leinhauser, who called it "felony dumb."

The state is coming off its driest year in a century, according to federal weather experts. Fire conditions are worse than in 1998, when blazes burned 500,000 acres statewide. Since Jan. 1, more than 83,000 acres have burned.

"Usually this type of activity starts toward mid March or the first week of April," said Jim Harrell, wildfire mitigation coordinator for the state Division of Forestry.

"The ending point has to be tied to the beginning of the summer rain showers," he said. "Until the rain comes, we can't look for a significant change."

- Staff writer Adam C. Smith and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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