HERNANDO BEACH — A fire whipped by overnight winds burned through about 650 acres of brush Sunday near Hernando Beach.
Crews from the Withlacoochee Forestry Center and Hernando County Fire Rescue had put out about 50 percent of the blaze, which is contained within the 11,000-acre Weekiwachee Preserve. Hernando County officials said they expect the fire to burn about 1,000 acres.
No structures were threatened as of Sunday evening, although crews are monitoring some nearby businesses, said Hernando County Fire Rescue spokesman Alex Lopez.
Shoal Line Boulevard was closed Sunday from Linda Peterson Park to Calienta Street. Authorities also closed the Hernando Beach boat ramp.
The fire started Saturday about 7 p.m., covering just 2 acres at first. Lightning most likely ignited a smoldering fire that fanned into flames aided by windy and dry conditions.
"It’s the weather conditions that we’re under right now, which is increasing winds and decreasing humidity," Lopez said. "We were already on an elevated fire danger."
About 42 percent of the state — including Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties — is experiencing a moderate drought, said 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Grant Gilmore.
While it’s standard for the dry season, this year is drier than most, Gilmore said. St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport has recorded 13 less inches of rain than normal over the last six months. Tampa International Airport has seen about 8 inches less.
Those factors, coupled with a recent sweep of dry air from the north, spell a high risk for fires.
"You’ve already got crunchy grass, dry air, breezy conditions," Grant said, "so if anything catches spark, it’s going to spread."
Adding to the difficulty in containing the fire is the terrain of the preserve, which is primarily marshland and brush, making it difficult for crews to reach certain areas, Lopez said.
A Florida Forest Service airplane is monitoring and mapping the fire to communicate with crews on the ground, said Judy Tear, mitigation specialist and spokeswoman for the forestry center. A U.S. Forest Service helicopter is dropping 2,800 gallons of water at a time over the blaze.
Authorities asked that nearby residents stay in their homes, close their windows and avoid lighting any outside fires. They also asked that people not fly drones over the fire.
Tear said this is a reminder to take precautions, such as mowing the lawn or cleaning out gutters, to prevent fires from spreading. She also encouraged people to have a plan in place in case of evacuations.
"Florida is very, very dry right now," she said. "When a wildfire is in your back yard is probably not a good time to get ready. Everybody who lives around this kind of terrain — they should be prepared now."
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.