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Brush fires called 'suspicious'

County fire officials suspect arson and dry conditions played a part in the timing and location of three fires in Ridge Manor Sunday afternoon.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2000


RIDGE MANOR -- Raindrops turned to steam Monday as they fell on remanents of three brush fires that authorities said had been deliberately set in Ridge Manor.

Fire officials said the close proximity and timing of the fires, which scorched more than 80 acres within a quarter mile of each other Sunday afternoon, made them "very suspicious."

"You just can't have a fire come up in three places," said Capt. Dennis Hackett of the East Hernando Fire Department.

The blazes threatened several homes, and officials recommended a voluntary evacuation of the area Sunday evening. The blazes were controlled by about 9 p.m., however, and no structures were damaged, and no one was injured. Firefighters continued to mop up the area and put out remaining hot spots Monday.

Meanwhile, Ridge Manor resident Pat Barnes and her brother, Steve Moyer, drove around one of the sites. A burnt stub of what once may have been a tree had flared up again, emitting a small flame. Moyer stopped his van, retrieved a shovel from the back and stomped it out.

"Don't see any sense in letting it get started again," Barnes said. "If the firefighters hadn't stopped it as aggressively as they did yesterday, (my neighbor) would have been a goner."

The first two blazes were discovered about 4:15 p.m. just west of Treiman Boulevard and Cornerstone Drive and on Glenchester Drive between Otter Drive and Baker Boulevard. About an hour-and-a-half later, the third fire popped up a few streets away near Madonna Drive and Solway Drive. This fire was contained to less than an acre.

Erin Aulbury, Citrus-Hernando Forest Area supervisor for the state Division of Forestry, said officials do not know who started the fires. He added that Hernando County is seeing an increasing number of suspicious ones.

"Unfortunately, there is a high percentage of folks who get a kick out of striking a match. And the drier it gets and the bigger the publicity gets, the more they come out of the woodwork," he said. "I'd say two out of three fires we've been dealing with have been intentionally set."

In addition to Sunday's fires, the blaze that burned 120 acres off Commercial Way just south of the the Hernando-Citrus County line has been labeled an arson.

"There was no other explanation for it," Aulbury said Monday. "It was out in the middle of the woods, and we haven't had any lightning until today. And it's in an area where we've historically had problems."

Officials have no suspects in this case either. Aulbury added that surrounding counties have been having similar problems, but officials do not think that there is a single serial arsonist on the loose.

"When you start seeing them all over the five-county area, chances are you're dealing with a bunch of people," he said. "In a couple of cases, it's turned out to be kids."

Aulbury added that arsonists usually set fires in remote areas, where they are unlikely to be seen. He recommended that anyone who comes upon a brush fire notice people or cars leaving the area because "it could be the individual who set the fire."

But most important, officials recommended that residents simply make sure their own actions, such as grilling outdoors and smoking cigarettes, don't start a fire.

"The big thing that folks can do right now is be careful with their outdoor activities," Aulbury said. "Even (barbecuing) can be a problem if you dump that charcoal before it's out."

Agencies that worked the blaze included the East Hernando Fire Department, the Division of Forestry, the Brooksville Fire Department, Pasco County Fire Department, Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department, Tri-County Volunteer Fire Department, a helicopter team from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, Dade City Fire Department, two Blackhawk helicopters from the National Guard, Zephyrhills Fire Department, Croom-A-Coochee Volunteer Fire Department, and a private air tanker that dumped thousands of pounds of orange-colored retardant on the site. In all, 11 brush trucks, eight engines and five tankers responded.

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