NEW PORT RICHEY — As the wildfire in Starkey Wilderness Preserve was brought under control Monday, the concern shifted from flames to smoke.
The "Anclote Branch" fire, which grew to 2,275 acres just 24 hours after starting Saturday morning, left a dense coat of smoke over much of west Pasco County. That smoke inundated the campus of River Ridge Middle and High Schools and penetrated buildings.
Pasco County School District officials were alerted about the smoke at 6:40 a.m. By 7:10 a.m., they decided to close the school on Monday 20 minutes before the first bell.
Superintendent Kurt Browning said at a news conference that officials had monitored the campus over the weekend but "the smoke was never like it was this morning when administrators arrived."
He said the fresh air ventilation system, after running for only 10 minutes, pulled smoke from outside into hallways and classrooms.
"It was pretty tough to see the school itself," Browning said. "It was bad."
So officials had to send the kids back home. Those who were dropped off by bus had to wait for the buses to come back and get them.
To clear the smoke from the building, school crews ran the air conditioning all day Monday and changed filters.
The district also closed Cypress Elementary School due to smoke concerns.
Late Monday evening, Pasco-Hernando State College officials warned students and staff at the New Port Richey campus that while classes will stay on a normal schedule they should still be careful traveling to and from the campus in case smokes affects driving conditions. Those with asthma and other respiratory conditions should also be careful.
Fire experts expect smoke to be a problem in the area for the next 30 to 45 days as the fires continue to smolder, especially in the morning. Officials have decided to delay the start times at River Ridge to 10:45 a.m. for the rest of the week. Dismissal was pushed to 5:10 p.m.. Buses will be picking up students three hours and 15 minutes later than usual.
Browning said they want to keep students and staff safe — and avoid make-up days at the end of the year. "Our backs are somewhat against the wall," he said.
School officials will reassess Sunday whether they need to continue that schedule next week. No other schools were placed on a modified schedule. If smoke conditions get worse and officials feel they need to close a school, Browning said the district will place automated phone calls to affected families by 6 a.m.
PASCO FIRE VISIBLE IN GOES-16 SATELLITE IMAGE
Preparing for hazardous smoke, the superintendent stressed, is not like getting ready for a storm.
"We can't plan ahead like we can a hurricane," Browning said. "This literally could be an hour and we find out we have smoke moving in on a campus."
The cause of this weekend's fire was still under investigation Monday. But fire officials estimated it was 75 percent contained by Monday.
Drought conditions have meant a hyperactive fire season both in Pasco and statewide. Crews fought two new fires in the county Monday: a small one in a median on State Road 52 and a 2-acre fire off Tinley Road in Moon Lake. Both were also brought under control.
The Florida Forest Service has responded to 22 fires in Pasco in 2017; the number was 11 this time last year. Statewide, there were 125 active fires covering more than 31,000 acres.
The county upped its burn ban over the weekend, prohibiting flames of any kind — even those contained in a closed grill — in any county park. Since May 1, county officials have issued five citations for violating the burn ban, which included a $14,700 reimbursement fee for firefighting at a recycling center that started a fire in Odessa last week.
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @josh_solomon15.