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Drought conditions play part in two wildfires in Pasco County

Smoke blankets the Beacon Square neighborhood as residents, from left, Jerrod Johnson, John Maloney, Chelaice Maloney and Felicia Walker watch firefighters battle a brush fire in Holiday.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Smoke blankets the Beacon Square neighborhood as residents, from left, Jerrod Johnson, John Maloney, Chelaice Maloney and Felicia Walker watch firefighters battle a brush fire in Holiday.

HOLIDAY — Through the thick smoke you could see people, many in their 70s, up on their roofs with hoses, trying to save their homes. Others stood on their lawns, spraying everything they could, their faces looking toward the fire, praying it didn't come closer.

They couldn't see any flames, just billowing smoke, turning Wednesday afternoon into night in the Beacon Square subdivision in Holiday.

By evening, the wind-whipped fire had scorched about 80 acres. No houses were damaged, fire officials said, but about 20 homes were evacuated. Fire officials said about 60 percent of the blaze was contained Wednesday night.

The ongoing drought likely will fuel more fires like this one in the months ahead.

In fact, a second brush fire ignited in Pasco County later in the day, and fire officials feared it could burn up to 400 acres. That blaze didn't threaten homes, but could push smoke onto Interstate 75 in the north Suncoast this morning.

Forecasters expect winds will shift later today and could blow smoke into Hillsborough and Pinellas counties if that fire is still going.

The Beacon Square fire started somewhere in the woods, though investigators didn't have a cause Wednesday evening.

"It wasn't natural," said David Fogler, a supervisor with the Florida Division of Forestry. It could have been a tree bowing in the 20 mph winds brushing a power line. It could have been arson, he said.

The fire started at about 2:30 p.m. and quickly swallowed 80 acres of forest and marsh.

The blaze was behind a line of homes on Beacon Square Drive. Grace Keating, who is 72 and lives alone with her elderly, toothless chihuahua, Taco, and her cat, Phyllis, thought her meat loaf was burning. When she saw the fire, she grabbed her pets and left.

"Thank God," she said, holding a shivering Taco, as she saw her home still standing.

Jo Newman, 68, hosed down her house and kept looking up. Her 76-year-old husband, Tom, was on the roof.

"He shouldn't be up there," she said. She worried.

Frances Palo stood on the Newmans' lawn as helicopters dumped buckets of water behind her home.

Her son, Robert, 43, was on the roof. He wouldn't leave. Palo, 75, lost her husband four months ago. They had been married 56 years.

"Mom, you've been through enough," Robert told her. "I've got to save the house."

She watched him, the smoke sometimes making him hard to see, standing guard with a hose. Other than her son and her cat, who was still hiding inside the home, the only thing she fretted over was a photo beside her bed. It was taken at she and her husband's 55th wedding anniversary party. It was the first time she had seen him cry. "I love you," he said, and kissed her. She looks at it before going to sleep every night.

"I miss him so much," she said.

The people who evacuated were expected to be able to return to their homes Wednesday night — if they could deal with the smoke.

State meteorologist Ben Nelson said wildfires could be devastating this year.

"Fire conditions are getting worse every day," he said. "We're setting up for an explosive wildfire season."

Nelson said this winter's series of hard freezes has left plenty of dead vegetation and dried soil to fuel a fire.

And spring, traditionally Florida's dry season, has arrived when the state is already in a moderate drought.

"It's just going to get worse," said Nelson.

He said the current conditions reminded him of the wildfire season of 2001, when Interstate 4 was closed for 10 days by a 10,000-acre fire.

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com.

Drought conditions play part in two wildfires in Pasco County 02/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 9:07am]

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