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    Arson adds to wildfire threat

    Flames and smoke sweep toward neighborhoods as brush fires are set in Sarasota and Charlotte counties.

    [Times photos: James Borchuck]
    An arson fire burns high in a neighborhood west of Highway 41 in near Port Charlotte. A task force organized by the Florida Division of Forestry is investigating the fires.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN and KENT FISCHER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


    NORTH PORT -- Great clouds of orange smoke straddled Interstate 75 again Thursday in Sarasota County, but their source was more sinister than the day before.

    An arsonist set a string of neighborhood brush fires that chased scores from their homes and heaped more work on firefighters battling a nearby wildfire to the north.

    photo
    A helicopter drops water on a neighborhood west of Port Charlotte after arson fires were set Thursday from northern Charlotte County to southern Sarasota County.
    Local residents already were angered by the 5,400-acre wildfire, which had started Tuesday in a county-owned preserve because of an apparent communication lapse during a controlled burn. But the intentional setting of more than a dozen fires near homes was something else.

    A law enforcement task force organized by the Florida Division of Forestry began investigating the fires, which were set along a line from northern Charlotte County to southern Sarasota County.

    If those responsible are caught, "You'd have multiple charges of arson," said Chuck Johnson, a forestry spokesman. "It would be a felony charge," and whoever it is would be made to pay for damages and the huge cost of fighting such fires.

    "They had better be a multimillionaire," Johnson said.

    By the time one of the brush fires reached Cabaret Street in Port Charlotte, Rob Schmidt, 30, had only enough time to grab what he could: golf clubs, the poker table, some CDs and a pair of inline skates. Roommate Jeff Bubb, 28, managed to haul out the faux leather couch.

    Thursday afternoon, they sat red-eyed and weary as firefighters tried, too late, to save their rented three-bedroom ranch.

    "I didn't think there was anything to be worried about because it looked like it was pretty much out," said Bubb. "Then I just saw this wall of flame crossing the road."

    Farther up the street, Frank and Donna Stabille grabbed their two cats, jumped in the car and took off. When they looked back, all they saw was smoke. They figured their house was gone.

    But firefighters arrived just as the blaze approached the edge of their home.

    "All I know is I have to find out how I can donate to the Fire Department because they did an awesome job," Frank Stabille said as the couple hosed the smoldering brush and palm trees that ring their property.

    All along Cabaret and the surrounding streets, homes still stood amid smoldering lots and charred palm trees sticking like bony black fingers from the sand. Pumpers spewed water into the roadside brush, while residents hosed down their roofs, lawns and trees.

    "We are literally working from one block to the next block on these arson-set fires," said Ty Alexander, another forestry spokesman.

    About 10 miles to the north, a wildfire spread in the Carlton Reserve, a 19,000-acre tract of woodlands purchased by Sarasota County as a well field.

    That fire had started Tuesday after a controlled burn got out of control. Johnson, the forestry spokesman, said a company hired by the county performed a controlled burn of about 600 acres on Monday without incident.

    Armed with favorable weather reports, workers planned to do another burn on Tuesday. But the weather forecast changed overnight with predictions of cool, dry airand breezes. The forestry division revoked the burn permit, but the company had already started Tuesday when it got word, Johnson said.

    The division and the county are reviewing how such a miscue could occur and whether a policy change is in order, he said.

    Ironically, the state promotes controlled burns as one of the most important ways to prevent wildfires. The burns eliminate natural fuels on which wildfires thrive. An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 acres undergo controlled burns each year in the forestry division district that includes Sarasota and Charlotte counties, Johnson said.

    The division works hard to convince a skeptical public that the burns are necessary. Johnson said he hoped the Carlton fire did not spark a "knee-jerk reaction" from critics.

    He said flames spread so fast in Thursday's arson fires because the wooded areas near homes contained four to five times the natural fuels that a normal forest would have. That's because wooded areas near homes are never allowed to burn naturally.

    More than 200 firefighters battled both fires Thursday, aided by six helicopters releasing water and five air tankers releasing fire-suppression slurry. They were just the latest in a string of nearly 2,000 wildfires to hit the state this year, the result of a drought that shows no signs of easing.

    Officials began to suspect arson when they noticed the brush fires were started within a 10- to 12-minute drive of each other in a pattern, starting in Port Charlotte and leaping north into neighboring North Port.

    The fire in the Carlton Reserve, 10 to 15 miles to the north, was too distant to have caused the other fires, said Johnson, who did not know precisely how the arson fires were set.

    "As dry as everything is down here," he said, "a Bic lighter is all you need for the method."

    - Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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