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At Pasco County brush fire, 'We thought for sure the house was gone'

HOLIDAY — The homes along Beacon Square Drive were spared from the brush fire that torched nearby woods and blackened yards, but it left residents shaken and concerned about flareups.

This morning a few homeowners gathered along the street, checking to see if everyone was okay and talking about the burning ash on their yards.

Front lawns were blackened and the smell of smoke hung in the air. Homeowners surveying the area could hear bulldozers rustling deep in the forest.

The fire was doused overnight but continued to smolder this morning.

No Pasco Fire Rescue units were on scene in Holiday or at another fire in San Antonio but crews with the Florida Division of Forestry have the fires surrounded.

The fires forced the evacuation of about 20 homes Wednesday in Holiday's Beacon Square subdivision, but residents returned later that night.

Still, when Miriam Jones stepped out of her hour a little before 7 a.m. this morning, she could still see — and smell — the smoke.

"Oh jeez, there it is," the 73-year-old said. "It's everywhere. It's still smoldering over there."

The Holiday fire, which has so far burned about 43 acres, is about 70 percent contained at this time, said Don Ruths, a spokesman for the Division of Forestry's Withlacoochee Forestry Center, which covers Pasco County.

"We have four crews out there," he said. "The morning breeze shifted so it's taken it away from the homes. It's a little smelly for the folks out there, but that's pretty much it."

Division of Forestry officials will be watching to see if winds shift later this afternoon when the sea breeze moves in, Ruths said.

Ruths said a second fire, which ignited Wednesday in San Antonio, has been completely contained. Crews were on the scene this morning doing cleanup to the 350 acres of swampland that burned, he said.

"It's burned to black," Ruths said.

On Wednesday, officials were concerned shifting winds could hamper visibility along Interstate 75 in the north Suncoast this morning, but that is no longer a concern. "Right now, it's clear," he said.

There were no injuries in either fire, but two homes had structure damage and some Beacon Square residents' lawns - already dry from recent cold snaps - were scorched.

"One of them had their back porch damaged, and another one had room damage," Ruths said. "They were minor."

Jeff Akins, 33, his wife, Shauna and their 10-year-old son, Devin, were picking up birthday cake supplies Wednesday when they noticed plumes of smoke billowing from their neighborhood.

They thought it was a house fire.

"As we got closer it started getting scary," Akins said. "People were going nuts."

Women clambered to their roofs with water hoses to protect their homes while others went house to house telling neighbors to evacuate. Akins and his family, debris and ash raining down around them, drove to the end of the street. They watched and worried.

"We thought for sure that the house was gone," said Akins. "We thought there was no way, from down the street, with the flames shooting up over the roof, that our house would still be there."

But after the blaze subsided Wednesday night, Akins saw his home was largely intact. Save for a wooden fence door firefighters kicked in and a charred back gate, the house was undamaged.

Behind the yard, in woods their son calls "Devin's Club," a trampoline, scooter and wooden fort were destroyed.

"That shows just how close the fire got," Akins said. "It's amazing."

In the nearby Gulf Trace subdivision, Jones said she saw flames as high as houses a couple hundred feet away.

Gulf Trace is next to Beacon Square, Jones said, and only about two streets in the subdivision had to be evacuated, Jones said.

"We're surrounded by woods here," Jones said. "It's nice too look at, but in times like these, it's not so good."

It's "urban wildland corridor" subdivisions such as Gulf Trace and Beacon square that make wildfires such a dangerous threat in Florida, said Terence McElroy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees forestry.

"If you're in a downtown area where shrubs are no higher than a few feet, you're not in the same threat," McElroy said. "But we have literally millions of people who live in wooded areas here. We live in an incredibly congested state."

The impact on homes isn't the only reason people should fear dry weather and wildfires. Florida's large timber and paper industry, concentrated mostly in northern parts of the state, is also at risk.

"Timber is a very important industry, and we've had wildfires that have burned 50,000 acres of woods," McElroy said. "That can translate into millions and millions in losses to the state economy."

Wildlife such as birds and deer have natural abilities to flee fires, though it could be more difficult in areas where there are housing developments, McElroy said.

The state's forestry division estimates that 70 percent of wildfires are started by humans, rather than lightning or other natural causes. McElroy issued these warnings: never leave a campfire unattended, never flick a cigarette out of a car window or onto the ground, and do not burn yard waste in dry, windy conditions.

"Someone might think, "Well, okay, so if I have a little fire, it's no big deal,'" McElroy said. "But in dry conditions, before you know it, that fire's in the neighbor's yard, then it has spread a hundred yards.

"With all the fuels on the ground, unless you really know what you're doing, we don't recommend starting a fire."

At Pasco County brush fire, 'We thought for sure the house was gone' 02/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 10:07am]
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