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Illicit campfires menace regional water source

At the Cypress Creek Tract, where vegetation is a crispy brown, the state has banned all fires. But nighttime revelers are leaving smoldering fires.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000


LAND O'LAKES -- Illegal campfires, some stoked by gasoline, have threatened thousands of acres along Cypress Creek, one of the Tampa Bay region's largest sources of drinking water.

The Cypress Creek Tract not only produces up to 47-million gallons of water a day, it also houses the operations center for Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility supplying Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"That's where the water makes its way to our members," Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman Michelle Klase said.

The latest fire was discovered still crackling Saturday morning a few feet from a gasoline can revelers had used the night before to ignite the blaze. Littering the site were dozens of beer bottles and an empty beer keg.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District maintains the site, on state land about a mile behind Pine View Middle School, as a youth camp site accessible by permit.

But during the dry weather that has rendered much of the Cypress Creek vegetation a crispy brown, the state has banned all fires.

It was the second time in the past two months that partygoers, probably teenagers, have left behind litter and a smoldering fire, said David Morgan, who oversees recreation on Swiftmud land.

"If the fire gets away from you, they can consider it arson," said Morgan, who sent maintenance crews to clean the site Monday morning.

About a mile away, teenagers lighted yet another illicit fire Friday night, strewing beer bottles, food wrappers and used condoms over the terrain.

The Cypress Creek Tract, more than 8,000 acres of wetland, pasture and forest, is one of the county's biggest nature preserves.

Slash pine, cypress and palmetto dominate a landscape teeming with wild hogs, deer, owls and bobcats.

The well field on the property supplies about one-seventh of the 176-million gallons of water generated daily by Tampa Bay Water.

The utility's operation center, east of Ehren Cutoff in Land O'Lakes, includes a treatment plant and monitoring equipment for several well fields in Pasco and Hillsborough.

To defend against possible disaster from an errant flame, the property is laced with firebreaks created by plowing under dry grasses that could serve as tinder.

Forestry officials also organize occasional controlled burns to deprive future fires of fuel. The 13 wells that dot the property are covered with brick or steel housing.

As for the illegal burners, Morgan has no clues who they are, despite the waste they leave behind.

"We've put out warnings to everybody about starting campfires," Morgan said. "But some people just aren't listening."

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