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Weather dries out tolerance for burning

By AMY HERDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


TAMPA -- Fire investigator Hector Noyas spotted the column of smoke as he filled his city car with gas at Fire Station I in downtown Tampa.

Driving to its source a few blocks away, Noyas came to a familiar sight of two homeless men huddled next to a blazing bonfire off Nebraska Avenue, in the rear of an abandoned wooden home. Only this time, he did not merely warn the men about the dangers of an outdoor fire during a drought, as he has done several times in the past.

He had them arrested.

"Right now, the Fire Department's stance is no tolerance," said Noyas, who in recent months had personally put out the fires lit by the men at Nebraska and E Third avenues.

"They kind of forced our hand."

The men, 52-year-old John Glover of no known address and 50-year-old James Washington of 2311 E Fifth Ave., were charged with burning during emergency drought conditions. The charge, a second-degree misdemeanor, carries with it a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail. The two remained in jail Friday in lieu of $500 bail.

"Apparently, they're homeless and they said they did it to keep themselves warm," Noyas said. "Regardless, they don't stay around to watch the fire and a lot of times it gets out of control."

Glover and Washington's charges follow Wednesday's arrest of 37-year-old Gladys Lewis of Land O'Lakes, whom a Pasco sheriff's deputy took into custody after watching her flick a lit cigarette out of a car window.

Charged with disposing of a lighted substance, a misdemeanor, Lewis was held in lieu of $5,000 bail until a judge released her that night.

The arrests underscore the seriousness of the drought, which has dropped water supplies to an all-time low and prompted the state Department of Agriculture to ban outdoor burning in 39 counties, including Hillsborough.

Friday morning's fire, which Noyas discovered shortly after 8:30, was on its way to spreading, he said, and required a fire engine to extinguish.

Flames scorched the trunk of a large oak. The tree's branches extend over an adjacent lot that includes an occupied home.

In the yard of the boarded-up, wooden house where the fire was lit, a cardboard box with a foam mattress inside leaned against the chain-link fence.

Several empty air conditioning units lay blackened next to the tree, and empty quart bottles of beer littered the yard, along with various piles of trash.

In addition to keeping warm, Noyas said, the men used the fire to melt the casing off copper wire in order to sell the copper.

Ella Ghoston, who manages the Blue Note Bar next door, saw the fire as she opened the business Friday morning at 7:30.

"The firetruck's been back there many times, putting the fire out," Ghoston said.

As for the fact the men are homeless, she said, "I don't feel sorry for them at all. They know it's wrong" to have bonfires, even if it is to keep warm, she said.

"They can go to Salvation Armyand stay."

- Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or herdy@sptimes.com.

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