Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

150 people evacuated as Hudson brush fire swallows 100 acres

HUDSON — The boys came running home about 4 p.m. Monday shouting, "There's a fire! There's a fire!" Tracie Forster stepped outside her mobile home near the end of Diagonal Road, a dirt road south of New York Avenue, and looked at the woods to the south.

"I couldn't even see the tree line, it was so thick with smoke," Forster said.

Moments later, fire engines screamed down the street and helicopters pelted the air. Those woods are popular with mud boggers, Forster said, but they're also filled with dried underbrush that can become tinder with a spark and a breeze.

Authorities suspect an arsonist set the fire — someone else was arrested a few weeks ago for starting fires in the same area. The blaze Monday evening quickly swallowed 100 acres and was still burning late Monday night.

"Our biggest concern is the smoke," said Don Ruths, a public information officer for the Florida Forest Service, the state agency working with Pasco firefighters to battle blazing palmettos and grass flats.

U.S. 19 became so choked with smoke that Pasco Sheriff's deputies closed the highway between Hudson and New York avenues. The flames licked the edge of Club Wildwood, a mobile home park filled with retirees, prompting the evacuation of about 150 residents. By 9:30 p.m., about 15 people had gone to a shelter the American Red Cross opened at St. Mark's Presbyterian Church.

About 7 p.m., as she and her sons were eating dinner, Forster heard a terrible boom.

Propane tank. Emergency responders told her the fire was closing in on Bradco, a roofing supply company on U.S. 19. Two hours later a deputy told her to be ready to evacuate her home, just in case.

"You can see the orange," she said, pointing to the tangerine glow above the trees to the south. "That's what's so scary."

Ruths said fire crews had dug "containment lines" around the fire and planned to set a backfire to burn off any available fuel before the wildfire could get to it and spread further. No homes had been damaged by the fire, he said, and one commercial building had only slight damage to its roof.

Jules Plawski saw the flames from his doorstep. He lives on Medusa Drive, on the northeast edge of Club Wildwood. Deputies evacuated him right after dinner.

"When I walked out, the flames were 25, 30 feet in the air," Plawski said. "The heat came right through the house."

His longtime partner, Carole Downs, quickly grabbed their medications, her jewelry box and two antique pieces of glass that had belonged to her grandmother. "Everything else can be replaced," she said.

They drove to the Hudson Square shopping center at U.S. 19 and Hudson Avenue, where they watched the dark smoke plume across the skyline, drifting toward the gulf. Downs looked down and realized she ran out without any shoes.

Winn-Dixie didn't have any flip-flops, but an apologetic cashier handed Downs some grocery bags. Downs sat down by the pharmacy and double-bagged each foot.

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