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Area firefighters pull double duty

Besides tending to fires in Hernando, they traveled to Lake County to fight a massive wildfire.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2000


It was grunt work, plain and simple, but members of the Brooksville Fire Department were happy to do it. The ash and the dirt and the muck suited them just fine, they said.

For nearly a week, local firefighters worked in shifts helping Lake County with a 2,411-acre fire that has eaten up vast areas of woodland and swamp. Authorities suspect the blaze, now virtually contained, was started by an arsonist. At one point, it was so large smoke left a haze over parts of Pasco County.

Starting April 28 and ending Tuesday, local firefighters helped out by going where they were needed most, to the edge of the fire, where flames were low but smoke thick. They attended to the important but distinctly unglamorous task of keeping the fire from jumping the fire line. They worked 27-hour shifts, with brief breaks to eat and sleep.

"(It was) dirty, nasty, smoky," said Brooksville firefighter Tim LaRoche, who has been with the department for a year. "But it was neat. It was the biggest fire I've been to."

Among the highlights of the trip was when one of the crews' brush trucks sank into a dry swamp area, becoming stuck in muck that acted like quicksand. (A bulldozer had to haul the truck out.) Another firefighter, pausing to gulp down fresh water, had to be taken from the woods and put on an intravenous line after a bee resting on the thermos he drank from stung him in the mouth. The threat of lurking rattlesnakes caused firefighters to stop working one night.

Not that they got much rest.

Lt. Dennis Wilfong said his week went something like this: He got Lake County's call for help at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, arrived at the fire at 1:30 a.m., worked the flames all day Wednesday, drove back to Brooksville on Thursday, took a breath and slept a few hours, worked a 24-hour shift at the local station Friday, took off for Lake County at 8 a.m. Saturday, fought the fires all day, returned home Sunday and smiled sleepily through his daughter's birthday party.

And the work pace doesn't appear to be slowing for any area fire departments. Although Lake County no longer needs help, dry conditions and high winds on the home front has contributed to at least six fires this week.

Many of them, officials say, were brush fires started by people -- teens with lighters and firecrackers or residents burning garbage. Another one, west of Spring Lake Highway on Powell Road, flared when a bird landed on a transformer. A particularly stubborn one started Wednesday afternoon and burned 20 acres, flaring up three times until it was put out for good Thursday.

Brooksville fire Chief Jim Daugherty said he expects more fires unless Hernando County gets a serious dose of rain.

"As long as it's dry like this, we're going to be busy," he said.

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