Fire officials say a brush fire still smoldering in Oldsmar is nothing compared with what could happen if a wildfire started in the Brooker Creek Preserve.
"Our big fear is the Brooker Creek Preserve," said Oldsmar Fire Rescue Fire Chief Scott McGuff.
McGuff described the more than 8,000-acre preserve as a tinderbox waiting to ignite.
When summer thunderstorms come, McGuff said, lightning will start fires.
Lisa Baltus, Pinellas County's Department of Environmental Management north county land manager, is also concerned.
"This whole area is very high danger," she said.
Fire crews from Oldsmar and the Division of Forestry have battled the Oldsmar fire at 807 Shore Drive East since Saturday afternoon. On Monday, scorched earth and charred trees at the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve South Support Area were still flaming and smoking.
Fire officials used the fire as an opportunity to remove even more dead brush, McGuff said.
The wind conditions, he said, were favorable for burning dry vegetation near Progress Energy's Higgins Power Plant, which contains four generators, a large natural gas line and a fuel storage tank.
About 38 acres burned, with only 2 of those acres in the county's Mobbly Bayou Preserve and the rest on power plant property, Baltus said.
"It will grow back," she said.
Pat Dwyer, a senior forest ranger at the state Division of Forestry Brooker Creek Forestry Station, has been watching forest fires in Pinellas County for 31 years. He has known the preserve acres since they were in cattle country. His agency is now calling the risk of fire in Pinellas "very high."
The swamps are dry now, he said, so when a brush fire starts, it will burn across the higher ground with grasses, trees and palmettos to the wetlands. And the soil of the wetlands, now dry, could start a "muck" fire.
"I'm very concerned," he said.
A muck fire may not go out until summer rains come, he said, and he saw those rains delayed until August in the early 1980s.
"We had a muck fire burning through May, June, July and August before it finally went out," he said.
The cause of the Oldsmar fire near the Higgins facility is under investigation, but witnesses reported seeing youths playing with fireworks before the fire, and Division of Forestry rangers said they heard fireworks going off while they were fighting the fire.
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.