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Fire smoulders along U.S. 19 in Hudson

HUDSON — Bob Reid marveled Tuesday that his house was still standing.

"That was all flames," he said, pointing to the burned trees behind his house. Reid, 68, lives on Medusa Drive in Club Wildwood, a mobile home park filled with retirees that was evacuated about 6:30 p.m. Monday because of a large brush fire in the woods bordering the community. The flames were 15 feet from Reid's house.

"It's amazing that no one got hurt and no houses got burned," said his wife, Beth Reid, 65.

The Reids were two of about 150 to 200 people who evacuated Monday night because of the fire. Most camped out at the Club Wildwood clubhouse until they were allowed to go back to their homes about midnight. On Tuesday, the fire still smoldered and had consumed 117 acres. People wandered the streets near the fire line, talking about how lucky they all were that the fire didn't come into the community.

"Boy, it was close," said Rita Giampa, 56, who rode around in a golf cart with her husband, Eugene, 66. He is disabled and was home alone when the fire erupted. Until his wife could get home, he thought he and his dog were going to die.

"It was very scary," Eugene Giampa said.

No injuries or serious damages of structures or property were reported, said Kawika Bailey, Pasco County forest area supervisor for the Florida Forest Service. All lanes of U.S. 19 between Hudson Avenue to New York Avenue were closed Monday night because of heavy smoke, but reopened after rush hour Tuesday morning.

Officials originally thought the fire might have been arson, but Bailey said the investigation revealed the blaze was caused by an untended campfire. He said investigators on Tuesday found the remains of the campfire, which appeared to be recreational and was deep in the woods east of U.S. 19.

The blaze quickly spread Monday across acres of dried underbrush. Overnight breezes of 14 mph, with gusts up to 20 mph, carried embers to new, dry pockets, Bailey said.

Doug Tobin, spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff's Office, said homes within a mile radius of the fire were under a voluntary evacuation Monday evening. The Sheriff's Office's reverse 911 system called 1,569 homes to alert citizens of the fire, Tobin said. A shelter was available for anyone who needed it, but people were allowed back to their homes around midnight. Pasco County spokesman Eric Keaton said no one stayed the night.

By Tuesday morning, the fire was 50 percent contained, according to the Florida Forest Service. Crews used six tractor plows to create a fire line, containing the blaze, Bailey said. Firefighters doused the flames with fire hoses and back burned areas to the west to prevent the wildfire from spreading.

Pasco County schools remained open Tuesday, though officials kept children inside at the five schools closest to the smoke: Hudson, Northwest and Gulf Highlands elementaries, Hudson Middle and Hudson High.

"We've also provided nurses at every school in case there are any respiratory problems," Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino said.

She added that if children stayed home Tuesday, "it will be an excused absence because this is an emergency."

Pasco County health officials reminded residents that smoke is a respiratory irritant and can worsen asthma and other chronic respiratory or lung conditions. It also can cause a scratchy throat and irritate eyes and nose.

Residents were urged to pay attention to local air quality reports and any health-related warnings related to smoke and avoid prolonged outdoor activity in smoky conditions. Officials said people with existing medical conditions should limit all outdoor activity.

Bailey said crews could be out there monitoring the area for days, if not weeks.

"We'll be out here until it rains," he said.

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek, Doug Clifford and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

Fire smoulders along U.S. 19 in Hudson 05/01/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 7:59pm]
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