The warning signs were all there: a persistent drought, a huge drop in rainfall going back to last year and heavy winds. The bay area started Friday under a "red flag warning" for wildfires. All that was needed was a spark.
It came when a commercial lawn mower overheated and ignited the dry grass on Jabil Circuit's property in the Gateway area. The dry ground and strong winds caused the fire and smoke to quickly spread to the Interstate 275 interchange at Gandy Boulevard just as rush hour started.
Thus began Friday's traffic nightmare.
Smoke blanketed the interchange, forcing the Florida Highway Patrol to shut down traffic in all directions. Backups spread all over the area. Dozens of fire engines brought more than 100 firefighters to contain the blaze. A mobile home park just off the interchange was evacuated and some residents suffered smoke inhalation.
"The fire is moving quicker than we have resources," said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Steve Lawrence after the first fire crews arrived.
Firefighters spent the afternoon chasing the fire and said they had contained 60 percent of it by 8:30 p.m. By 9 p.m. they reopened I-275 and started sending the other fire agencies home. Gandy remained closed, blocked by fire engines.
St. Petersburg Fire Rescue faced a long night ahead of chasing down pockets of fire.
"We're going to be here all night to make sure we can contain the hot spots," fire Chief Jim Large said.
The fast-moving brush fire was the natural result of the drought conditions afflicting the Tampa Bay region and Florida. St. Petersburg has had just under 6 inches of rain since Oct. 1. That is an 11-inch drop from the 30-year normal of 17 inches a year, according to the National Weather Service.
"When you get days like today, when you have low relative humidity, gusty winds and the long period of below-normal rainfall, it's ideal conditions for wildfire activity," National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Oglesby said.
The fire was first reported at 3:40 p.m., and first responders started pouring into the area.
At 4:49 p.m., St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted:
"I can't stress this enough — avoid Gandy/275 area in St. Pete until further notice. Spread the word."
Officials evacuated Village Green mobile home park at 2001 83rd Ave. N and brought about 30 people to the command post at the Wawa at 3101 Gandy Blvd. The Florida Forest Service performed a quick controlled burn to protect the park.
Firefighters from North Pinellas County and Hillsborough and Manatee counties were called in. The wind wasn't their only challenge. There was no hydrant near the interchange.
Three tanker trucks were dispatched. But fire engines had to drive back and forth to the Wawa, refilling their water tanks at the hydrant there, then driving back into the smoke.
One firefighter was reported to have been hospitalized for heat exhaustion.
Heavy winds caused burning embers to fly across Gandy, allowing the fire to jump the highway. The fire consumed 40 acres.