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Brush fire forces evacuation of houses

Investigators suspect the blaze was set by two children in the woods shortly before the fire was reported.

[Times photo: Douglas Clifford]
Rose King of the Largo Fire Department fights a brush fire in woods near McMullen Park and Tennis Complex in Clearwater.

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By JANE MEINHARDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Little plastic cups, plates and potato sticks were scattered on the floor of Betty Weeks' garage Thursday, evidence of the quick evacuation of the four children in her home day-care program.

The two 3-year-olds and two 2-year-olds evaded a brush fire that swept toward Weeks' house on Burnice Drive, spewing ashes and airborne embers.

"They did great," said Weeks. "I put them in here when the fire first started, and then when it got worse, a neighbor helped me move them. I called their parents, and they all went home."

About a dozen houses in the 2400 block of Burnice were evacuated when flames approached the neighborhood. But Weeks stayed to try to protect the house she has lived in for 21 years.

Her back yard borders woods of pine trees and heavy brush. Some of the trees and vines drape over her wooden stockade fence.

"At first, I thought, my house is just gone," Weeks said. "I think what saved me was that the wind must have shifted a little. That's all that saved me."

No one was injured and no houses were damaged by the fire. Investigators suspect the fire may have been set by two children who were in the woods just before the blaze was reported at 10:42 a.m.

"Two kids went flying by on their bicycles from over there," said Andrew Semon, who lives on Edenville Avenue. "It was just before the flames started shooting up in the air."

Clearwater Fire Marshal Randy Hinder said the fire scorched about 5 acres of the 10-acre woods on the east side of McMullen Park and Tennis Complex off Edenville Avenue.

Firefighters believe the blaze started in the middle of the woods, bordered on the east by a retention pond and a Florida Power easement, and on the west by the tennis complex.

Wind swept the fire southwest, threatening the houses on Burnice Drive.

"We're like a tinderbox," Hinder said. "It's so dry that something like this is our real grave concern. This area provides privacy and seclusion, but it could be dangerous. People need to evaluate their homes and the property around it."

Largo and Dunedin firefighters assisted, bringing special trucks equipped for extinguishing brush fires. It took a little more than an hour to get the fire under control.

Tom White and his wife, Debbi, refused to leave their leased house at 2478 Burnice Drive because wind-blown sparks and embers were landing on the roof, igniting leaves and other debris that had dropped from trees. White stood on chairs on his back patio and aimed a garden hose at his roof.

"I've had five smoldering fires on the roof," he said. "The first one started in the front gutter. I've been putting them out, so I told them there was no way I'm leaving."

Forest Service officials cut a fire break -- a cleared area designed to prevent the spread of flames -- behind the house. Firefighters also cut down trees and brush in the woods.

Because of the extended drought and dangerous fire conditions, Hinder advised homeowners near woods to clear brush areas and cut down undergrowth to create a 20-foot safe zone around the perimeter of their property.

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