Neighbors heard an explosion. Others, blocks away, watched the ash float down like a morning mist.
About 10 a.m. Wednesday, a chimney fire erupted inside Vernon and Judy Lewis' home at 7279 Coventry Court. As the flames spread to the second story, the couple and their Pomeranian, Peanut, escaped.
Both suffered some smoke inhalation and were taken to the hospital for precautions, authorities said. They are both expected to be fine.
Friends described the couple as kind, friendly neighbors. They thought the two had built the house about 20 years ago and lived in it since then.
Vernon Lewis, 80, is a retired electrician, neighbors said; Judy, 65, works at a local Sweetbay Supermarket.
Friends and family members sobbed as they watched dozens of firefighters battle the fire and a fierce morning wind. Neighbor Fred Klemme, who has known the family for years, said he intended to offer the Lewises his camper until they figure out what they'll do next.
Unfortunately, incidents like this one are common this time of year, when residents are lighting their fireplaces for the first time in months, said Hernando County Assistant Fire Rescue Chief Frank DeFrancesco.
He recommended that people have their chimneys inspected twice a year, once at the beginning of winter and again at the end.
Choosing the right type of wood is also critical, DeFrancesco said. A hardwood, such as oak, provides a much safer burn than softer woods. In fact, the chief said, pine can cause a layer of highly flammable creosote to coat the inside of the chimney.
"When they light their fire," he said, "it burns up the whole chimney."
Portable space heaters can also be dangerous if they're not used properly, he said. People should use the manufacture-recommended fuel, provide ample space around the heater and never leave it plugged in when they leave the room.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.