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120-acre fire tamed as others flicker to life

Officials close part of U.S. 19, school buses change course and firefighters battle bees as more than three fires spring up.

By BILL VARIAN and JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2000


CHASSAHOWITZKA -- Firefighters weathered shifting winds, bees and calls to other blazes Friday as they beat down a 120-acre wildfire that erupted near the western Hernando-Citrus county line. The fire forced emergency workers to close part of U.S. 19 for more than four hours starting about 12:30 p.m. The blaze also threatened as many as two dozen homes, seven of them seriously, authorities said. None of the homes was damaged, and, while residents were placed on alert, they were not asked to evacuate.

photo
[Times photo: Steve Hasel]
A helicopter called in to drop buckets of water on the fire lands Friday on US. 19.
Fire officials had not determined the cause of the blaze, which started north of Zebrafinch Avenue west of U.S. 19 in Hernando County. But they said it underscored the need for caution on the part of residents as Florida, and particularly the North Suncoast region, battles severe drought conditions.

"People need to be really, really careful," said Anthony Petellat, Hernando County forester for the state division of forestry.

County and state firefighters sprang to action not long after the blaze was called in at about 12:15 p.m. Volunteers with the Chassahowitzka Fire Department arrived at a fire that already had consumed 5 acres and within minutes had doubled in size, fed by sustained winds of 10 to 12 mph.

Denise James, a captain with that fire department who was among the first to arrive on the scene, quickly called for help, alerting the division of forestry. She was thinking of the winds and the dry conditions, which pushed the area's drought index -- a measurement of just how dry the ground is -- to 731 on a scale that goes to 800.

"This area, any time we get a fire out here, it ends up big," James said. "It's a rural area; the buildings are right up to the wood line."

By 1 p.m., the fire had crossed U.S. 19, though that arm was contained before it could spread.

Helicopters from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Forest Service dumped buckets of water on the blaze, concentrating on the flames that had jumped east of the highway. Meanwhile, two Forest Service tanker planes flew from Tallahassee to drop five loads of pink slurry, a flame retardant mixed with water and dye -- the latter to mark where they've already hit.

"That's beautiful," said Citrus County fire services director Mike Schlaudraff, watching the Forest Service planes. "Isn't that beautiful?"

Also watching from the shoulder of U.S. 19 were residents. A tall glass of lemonade and the comfort of lawn chairs took the edge off the heat and smoke for Vicky Gootee, who was more interested in watching the spectacle then worrying about whether it would spread to her neighborhood on Rose Water Point.

"Oh my god, it was awesome," Gootee said, a cigarette in one hand and a camera in the other. "Hopefully, I got some decent pictures."

photo
[Times photo: Steve Hasel]
Firefighter Charlie Burghardt douses his head with water to cool off.
Although Gootee said deputies had advised one of her neighbors to wet down her roof, Gootee and her husband set up chairs on the east side of U.S. 19, where traffic had been cut off, to watch. A pair of binoculars dangled around her neck.

"I was at Publix when I first saw the black smoke, and wondered how close it was to our house," she said. "At first, we were going to get the dogs and birds and whatever we could and run for it. Then it looked like they pretty much had it under control, and -- boom -- it jumped 19.

"This is the most excitement we've had since we moved here,"she said. Winds changed directions at least twice, blowing north at first, then west. And they picked up steam.

"The wind tends to pick up during the afternoon with the sea breezes," said Chassahowitzka firefighter Charlie Burghardt, who had just gotten off work as a golf course maintenance worker when he got the call. "It doesn't help anybody fighting fires."

The woods where the fire was concentrated also harbored yellow jacket nests and more than 100 artificial beehives maintained by a local beekeeper. Several firefighters suffered stings, though none was seriously harmed.

T.J. Storch, a retired Tampa firefighter, owns 400 acres on the Hernando side of the border. He said he plowed fire lines around his land when he realized the magnitude of the blaze.

"It was pretty bad," he said. "I saw it when it started; it was just a small fire. But then it just was really going."

He also said he was upset that no one tried to save more of the beehives.

"I know they were busy," he said. "But the bees burned totally up."

Firefighters had other things to worry about, including at least three other wildfires in Citrus County that started as volunteers gained control of the blaze in Chassohowitzka.

They diverted one of the tanker planes briefly to dump two loads of slurry at Suburban Acres south of Floral City, where fire burned less than 2 acres. Another small blaze drew firefighters to the Black Diamond area.

Shortly after 5 p.m., just before firefighters declared the Chassahowitzka fire under control, another wildfire erupted in Homosassa. That fire east of where Longfellow Street dead-ends had claimed 20 acres by 6 and was still burning.

The Chassahowitzka fire also affected school bus routes in Hernando County.

Four buses -- two from Pine Grove Elementary, one each from West Hernando Middle and Central High -- were not allowed to travel north of Knuckey Road, which empties onto U.S. 19 about 3 miles south of the Citrus line.

About 17 students who live in the area were left to find alternate means of transportation. Most of them were from Pine Grove. Schools notified families, and most kids were picked up by their parents. A few families arranged for children to ride home with friends.

-- Staff writer Bridget Hall contributed to this report.

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