By BILL VARIAN and JOSH ZIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2000
PINE RIDGE -- A brush fire erupted Friday afternoon in central Citrus, burning 30 acres and creeping perilously close to several homes and the Pine Springs Plaza at County Road 491 and Hampshire Boulevard.
Authorities reported no injuries or structural damage. The Citrus County Sheriff's Office closed traffic on parts of CR 491 for 30 minutes while crews battled the blaze.
Friday marked the eighth consecutive day that county emergency crews have battled at least one brush fire. The cause of the blaze remained undetermined late Friday; however, the contributing factors -- dry conditions, lack of rain and fairly strong winds -- are all too familiar during this extended drought.
"This is probably the worst I've seen," said Lance Potter, a lieutenant with the DeRosa Volunteer Fire Department and a 10-year fire service veteran.
Firefighters said the blaze started shortly after 4 p.m. and consumed 30 acres south of Hampshire and west of CR 491. Flames grew as tall as 100 feet at some points, and brisk winds carried smoke into nearby residential areas.
Darbi Williams and Karen Sinopoli were working inside the Hair Biz salon, which is in the Pine Springs Plaza, when firefighters told them to drop everything and leave.
"We just saw the flames and then it hopped from tree to tree," Williams said.
"I didn't turn off my irons, didn't turn off the air conditioning. The lights are still on," Sinopoli said.
Karen Rizzo, owner of Rizzo's Pizza, said that firefighters told her husband, Jay, to "just grab the money and get out."
Jay Rizzo told a customer to "just box your food and take it away," Mrs. Rizzo recalled.
Volunteer firefighters from throughout Citrus responded to the blaze. The state division of forestry sent a "spotter" airplane to monitor the fire, and the Marion County Sheriff's Office sent a helicopter.
After the fire was under control, some crew members from the DeRosa department paused to rest. One of those firefighters, Lt. Ed Bugbee, said he was concerned the fire was the work of an arsonist.
"I think there are a lot of problems with suspicious fires in this area," Bugbee said.
Speculation aside, the county's public safety director, Charles Poliseno, said Friday's blaze should serve as another reminder that Citrus residents should take extra precautions with barbecues and other outdoor activities during this holiday weekend.
"With these kinds of conditions," Poliseno said, "an ember could smolder for a couple of days before it catches hold. One carelessly tossed cigarette is all it takes."
Mike Schlaudraff, the county's fire services director, implored his troops to remain vigilant, even after the Friday blaze appeared under control.
"We're going to have to work this," he told some firefighters. "The way this wind's going, we're going to have smoke, accidents all over 491."
"I'm sure it won't be the last one (fire) this weekend," Potter, the DeRosa firefighter, said.