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Florida at the flash point

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Wind-propelled wildfires edged up to U.S. 19 in Citrus County on Wednesday, closing the highway for about two hours, officials said.

A woods fire that tore across part of Citrus County on Wednesday serves warning to the state of just how dry and vulnerable it is to massive fires.

By BILL VARIAN, JIM ROSS and MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2000


Brush fire scorches 300 acres

Firefighters have Citrus County covered

CRYSTAL RIVER -- A wildfire that forced the closing of U.S. 19 and threatened several homes on its way to scouring as much as 550 acres Wednesday served up a reminder of just what a tinderbox Florida is.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, this (wildfire) is probably an 8," said Chuck Schneider, operations manager for the regional office of the Florida Division for Forestry.

Rain-starved conditions and strong, unpredictable winds gusting up to 20 mph helped feed the blaze north of Crystal River, prompting the evacuation of the River Oaks Assisted Living Facility and several neighborhoods.

The Seven Rivers Community Hospital was briefly on alert for an evacuation.

The evacuation order never came, and no one was injured and no buildings damaged in the fire, which authorities say was ignited by a short in an outdoor electrical cord.

Firefighters were working at several flare-ups after 9 p.m., some of which were still close to homes. Bulldozers were being used to clear vegetation and contain the hot spots.

The fire was convincing evidence of what state fire officials have been saying for weeks: Massive fires are very possible.

photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
A resident of the River Oaks Assisted Living Facility is helped into a school bus for evacuation from the fire zone.
The continuing springtime drought has dried out all of Florida. As a result, wildfires are flaring up all over -- about 1,550 since Jan. 1.

Wednesday's blaze put the number of wildfires right at 100 in Citrus County this year, the largest until now burning about 60 acres, said Citrus County Public Safety Director Charles Poliseno.

In all, about 42,000 acres have burned throughout Florida. That includes a 4,100-acre fire in Lafayette County and a 3,700-acre fire near Gainesville in late February.

The worst might be ahead.

"We are preparing for a tough wildfire season," said Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the Division of Forestry. "We're hoping that later this week we'll get some significant rain. That's what we need, but we haven't gotten it yet."

Officials with the state Emergency Operations Center monitored the Citrus fire Wednesday, making sure equipment and manpower was ready if it got out of hand.

The blaze started about 12:45 p.m. near the Emerald Oaks subdivision north of Crystal River. Initially fire officials estimated 100 acres had burned but revised the estimates upward shortly before 7 p.m. after the Citrus County fire chief surveyed the damage by helicopter.

"It's a pretty good wind, stronger than usual," said Frank Alsheimer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "It's been fairly steady at 13 to 15 mph, gusting to 19 and 20 mph all afternoon."

A high-pressure ridge to the east and a low-pressure ridge over Texas had winds gusting eastward throughout the region.

The Tampa Bay area has gotten less than half its normal rainfall this year, and long-range forecasts call for a spring that will be drier and warmer than usual. That certainly didn't help Citrus firefighters, who watched the fire move north toward County Road 488 and -- for a brief time -- even jump west of U.S. 19.

Rain may be on the way. Forecasters predict a 50 percent chance of showers or thunderstorms today in Citrus and Hernando counties, and a 40 percent chance in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. But winds still should be gusting up to 15-20 mph.

The forecast calls for a 40 percent chance of rain Friday and the possibility of scattered showers through the weekend.

Authorities were skeptical a few showers will do much to help. For instance, Citrus County was reporting a drought index, a measurement of just how dry it is, of 601 -- up 20 points from the day before -- on a zero to 800 scale.

"Brush fires are a symptom of the drought," said Poliseno, the Citrus County public safety director. "Any rainfall in the next week or so will have a negligible effect."

Although Wednesday's fire never came close to Florida Power Corp.'s five coal and nuclear units, which are west of U.S. 19 and just north of Crystal River, plant management monitored the situation closely, plant spokesman Mac Harris said.

"At one point the fire crossed over (U.S.) 19 between the two transmission corridors," he said. But "it did not affect plant operations."

It did affect River Oaks Assisted Living Facility, which evacuated 60 or so residents to nearby elder-care facilities and nearby Seven Rivers Community Hospital. Authorities evacuated a few single-family homes, as well.

"I got up on our roof and didn't like what I saw," said River Oaks owner Daniel Ward.

So Ward, like others, didn't wait for the official word to get out.

The fire never threatened Sharon Roy's house on Galway Lane just north of CR 488. But smelling and seeing the smoke, she decided not to take chances.

"I started getting leaves out and watering the yard good in case it did come this way," she said. "I just did all the area 30 to 40 feet out from the house. If it got any closer than that, I don't think it would matter.

"I wouldn't say I was rushing," said Roy, who lives in the only house on the street. "We live in the woods so any time there's a fire we get a little nervous."

Firefighters closed portions of U.S. 19 for about two hours Wednesday. They also blocked traffic on several local roads as they attacked the fire with hoses, front-end loaders and even two helicopters that dumped water from the air.

By 5 p.m., firefighters had the blaze under control. They reopened U.S. 19 shortly after.

South of Citrus County on Wednesday, forestry workers fought two Polk County wildfires and a fire in south Hillsborough County that burned up a firefighting crew's tractor, said Chris Kintner, spokeswoman for the Forestry Division's Lakeland District.

-- Information from Times staff writers Josh Zimmer and Times wires was used in this report.

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