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    'Wall of flame' threatens homes

    In a brush fire that burns 25 to 30 acres, a quick response prevents damage, and no one is injured.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- As 40-foot-high flames from a nearby brush fire crept ever closer to his home's screened-in pool, Rich Marker returned to the house one last time Monday morning to grab the remaining cat.

    By then, the towering wall of flames was within about 30 feet of his property.

    It was then, Marker said, that thick black smoke engulfed the house.

    "The whole house went black like night," he said.

    "We ran," he said. "I thought the house had had it. I thought it was gone for sure."

    But when Marker returned later, he found that firefighters had beaten down the flames just behind his yard, and he thanked several of them.

    The fire late Monday morning burned 25 to 30 acres in the gnarled brush of undeveloped land bounded by Klosterman Road, Cardinal Trail and Harbor Woods and Westwinds drives. Though several homes were threatened, none was damaged. Nor was anyone injured, unless you count the numerous scratches on Marker's hands and neck from the five cats, a dog and a pet ferret he pulled from his home.

    "They didn't really want to leave," he explained.

    Firefighters first got a call about a brush fire in the area of Crystal Beach Drive about 11:45 a.m. When they got there, there was no fire, said Palm Harbor Fire and Rescue Capt. Tim Pilson, but they did see smoke to the north.

    "We put two and two together and headed that way," Pilson said.

    When they arrived, the fire had burned to within about 30 feet of several homes on Harbor Woods Drive. Using hoses at regular intervals, firefighters doused the flames before they reached the homes. But the fire continued to burn in the direction of homes on Cardinal Trail and Westwinds Drive, so more units were dispatched to contain the blaze.

    More than 30 units responded to the fire, including firetrucks from Dunedin, East Lake, Oldsmar, Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs and the Division of Forestry.

    Firefighters climbed atop ladders extended high into the air to shoot water over homes on Cardinal Trail and into the wooded area. A sheriff's department helicopter hovered overhead to track the fire's progress.

    Changing winds complicated things.

    "We would be working it one way and the wind would change and we'd work it another way," Pilson said. "It creates havoc."

    Later, bulldozers from the Florida Division of Forestry plowed swaths of dirt around the perimeter of the fire to prevent further spread. And later in the day, firefighters started a fire of their own along Cardinal Trail to clear some brush and prevent the possibility of a similar fire in the future.

    Although drought conditions contributed to the spread of the blaze, the recent rains helped firefighters, said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue district Chief David Cole.

    "I'm very thankful it didn't happen before the rains, or this could've been a lot worse," Cole said.

    The cause of the blaze is still unknown, Cole said, although fire investigators said it is not believed to have been because of natural causes, such as lightning.

    "It's suspicious only in that, how else could it have started if no one started it?" Cole said.

    Brenda Gardner, whose house was closest to the flames, said the fire was terrifying.

    Gardner said she first saw the fire roaring in the distance, north of her home. A gust of wind sent the fire in the direction of her house, hopping from tree to tree and quickly heading toward her.

    "Instantly, there were these big old flames," she said. "It was a wall of flame behind the house."

    She quickly grabbed her important papers -- insurance, birth certificates, credit cards and the like -- and fled.

    Down the street, George Smith said he didn't notice the fire until firefighters knocked on his doors and warned him to evacuate.

    "When I came outside the house, there was so much smoke and debris flying everywhere," he said. "The flames were leaping 30 to 40 feet high."

    Ash fell like snow throughout the neighborhood for most of the afternoon.

    "We'll be smelling this for a while," Smith said of the smoke.

    Later in the afternoon, as her dog took a dip in the pool and neighbors gathered to discuss what might have been, Gardner shouted over to several nearby firefighters.

    "Bless every one of you guys," she said.

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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