By ED QUIOCO
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000
OLDSMAR -- Flames as high as 50 feet charred about five acres at the top of Old Tampa Bay and surged close enough to a residential street to force the evacuation of five homes Sunday afternoon.
The fire, which investigators labeled as suspicious, spread rapidly through woods on the southern tip of Oldsmar on the east side of Shore Drive. Firefighters and the state Division of Forestry were able to keep the blaze under control, though the flames came within 100 yards of homes on Lexington Street.
"There was a big burst of flames and the wind was blowing and it was like, "Oh my God, here it comes,' " said Vickie Carter, 47, who lives on Lexington Street. "You could hear the fire burning. It was horrible. It was very scary, quite nerve-racking."
The sight of the flames, reported at 2:28 p.m., made Carter's daughter Ashley cry, she said.
"I thought (the fire) might come over here," said Ashley, 8. "I got nervous and cried. I'm still scared."
It took firefighters about two hours to get the blaze under control, said Oldsmar fire Capt. Robert Carman. The blaze still was relatively small when the first firefighters arrived, he said, but within minutes the flames had spread to about an acre.
Residents of five homes on the south side of Lexington were asked to evacuate as a precaution, Carman said.
"As dry as it has been, we kind of went with a little overkill," Carman said. "You don't mess around with (brush fires.) They can get out of hand so fast."
Carl and Stacey Cavanagh, whose home abuts the woods, said they had heard an explosion that sounded like a gunshot coming from the general area of the blaze just before the flames erupted.
When firefighters told them to evacuate, they quickly packed some irreplaceable photographs and their cats Tina and Pierre.
"(My wife) panicked really bad and I couldn't calm her down," said Carl Cavanagh, 30. "But she's okay now. You've worked real hard for what you've got and just to see it go up in flames doesn't make much sense to me. It's pretty scary."
Stacey Cavanagh, 27, said the area behind their home is a popular hangout for children who ride their bicycles on an adjacent Florida Power Corp. right of way to get into the woods.
"There are always kids back there," she said. "We never know what sounds come out of there. I was all right until the firefighters said we might want to get any memorabilia and personal items out of the house."
A Division of Forestry tractor plowed a fire break -- a cleared area designed to stop the spread of flames -- around the blaze Sunday afternoon. Firefighters also were helped by westerly winds that pushed the blaze toward the bay and away from the homes.
"If the wind was in the other direction, we would have been in trouble," Carman said.
A Pinellas County Sheriff's Office helicopter carried water from a nearby lake and dumped it on the fire.
The fire most likely started in a trail that snakes into the woods, "which means somebody probably went in there and set the fire," said Patrick Dwyer, a state senior forest ranger and wild land firefighter.
By late Sunday, Dwyer was intentionally setting fires between the fire breaks to burn any potential fuel -- palmettos, dead vegetation and vines hanging from trees -- that might be ignited by the smoldering remnants of the wildfire.
Because the extended drought in Pinellas County is causing dangerous fire conditions, Dwyer said people need to be careful around woods. It wouldn't take much to start a wildfire.
In Pinellas, the drought index has crept to 700. The index ranges from 0, being totally soaked, to 800, which would be like a desert, Dwyer said.
"And it's only March," Dwyer said. "Imagine what it will be like in June."