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Fires, drought don't mix

Smoke from wildfires elsewhere in the state serves as a reminder for Pasco: All outdoor burning is illegal without a permit.

By CARY DAVIS and CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


DADE CITY -- East Pasco County awoke Thursday morning to the eerily familiar odor of wildfire smoke.

State forestry officials said the acrid smoke drifted in from a large Central Florida fire, but the odor left early risers scratching their heads and offered a reminder that the long-running drought could produce a repeat of 1998.

As the sun rose over the east Pasco hills, Candi Glover opened the door of her Blanton home, smelled the smoke and panicked.

"I thought something was burning right next to me," said Glover, 44. "I ran outside and checked my barn and my pasture, then I ran back to see if it was my house."

Glover then noticed a thin haze, reasoned it was coming from somewhere else and, like others, went on with the rest of her day.

But officials warn that although Thursday's pungent smog cleared by noon, residents in Pasco and surrounding counties shouldn't get complacent.

The drought index, a measurement of soil moisture, has approached desert-like levels locally. The index has reached an average of 678 in Pasco, up 25 points in just the past week on a scale that peaks at 800.

Any reading over 600 is considered a "really high alert" for wildfires, said state Division of Forestry spokesman Terence McElroy.

In northeast and west Pasco, the index has topped 700.

Thursday's smoke came from a 1,900-acre fire raging near Groveland, in rural Lake County between Brooksville and Orlando. The fire, which started Monday, was under control Thursday but is expected to smolder for weeks.

Residents in South Florida awoke to a similar haze, blamed on a combination of Guatemalan forest fires and the Groveland blaze.

While the Central Florida fire is small compared to the 500,000 acres that burned in 1998, it was a reminder of what can happen when drought and wind mix.

San Antonio Volunteer Fire Chief Troy Newton, a full-time Division of Forestry firefighter, spent Wednesday night battling the Groveland fire.

He worked until midnight aboard a bulldozer, clearing firebreaks.

"We had a hard time controlling them with these conditions. It was pretty much all we could do to keep them under control," he said Thursday. "I'd sink my plow in as low as it would go, and there was nothing but sugar sand and all of it dry.

"I discourage people in this area from burning," he said.

Pasco County Emergency Services Director Matthew Ballaban said all outdoor burning, even the smallest campfire, is illegal without a permit from the state Division of Forestry.

And that agency stopped issuing those permits a week ago.

Ballaban said even carefully watched fires can get out of control.

"Trouble is, that fire doesn't always want to stay on your land, it wants to jump to your neighbor's land," he said.

Central and east Pasco are considered an "urban/wildland interface," Ballaban said. That means homes are built in areas surrounded by slash pine and other growth that can become one big match during dry periods.

To protect themselves and their homes, property owners should clear away wild growth up to 80 feet from structures.

"I've seen people, they have these 5- and 10-acre tracts with beautiful homes sitting in the middle of a forest," Ballaban said. "All that is like having flammable liquids around your house."

There's no telling when county and state fire officials may lift restrictions on burning.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District this week declared a drought emergency.

So far this year 2,270 brush fires have burned 71,763 acres in Florida, according to state figures.

McElroy said forestry officials have been on high alert for three months. Conditions in the state are drier now than they were at this time in 1998, he said.

Forestry meteorologists are predicting the drought will continue until late May. Then the region can expect summer's steady rains, McElroy said.

But even rainfall doesn't guarantee good news.

"You've got to remember the lightning problem," McElroy said.

The smallest fires also need immediate attention.

A small fire in a metal burn pit in Lacoochee on Wednesday grew into a half-acre blaze, said Dade City Fire Department Capt. Joey Wubbena.

"Right now, we're in the critical stage," Wubbena said. "It's a tinderbox out there."

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

All outdoor burning is banned

All outdoor trash and yard waste burning is banned in Pasco County without a state permit.

The state Division of Forestry stopped issuing permits last week in Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Sumter and Lake counties. The ban includes commercial and agricultural burning.

Pasco Emergency Services director Matthew Ballaban said all fires, including campfires and bonfires, are illegal, as is the use of recreational fireworks.

Violators of the county ban face fines of up to $500 or 60 days in jail.

Homeowners in rural areas should examine their property for fire hazards and dead growth located within 80 feet of structures.

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