HUDSON — Josh Ernest and his wife and baby were driving in their van Wednesday when they saw smoke. It billowed from the woods along the west side of U.S. 19 just south of Beacon Woods Drive. Ernest, 33, is a volunteer firefighter in Maine who is hoping to relocate here. He turned around and parked near the fire. A man appeared next to him.
"My house is on fire!" the man shouted and ran into the woods.
Ernest followed him and found two camps of homeless people scrambling to gather their belongings. A propane tank exploded and the fire roared. People screamed for help. Ernest and other citizens grabbed what tents and belongings they could and brought them to safety. One sleeping man was woken and dragged to a parking lot by friends. Officials estimate about three dozen people were in the woods. No one was injured.
"It was hot," Ernest said as he and his family watched firefighters extinguish the flames.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, said Pasco Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Torrey Duink. The 2-acre fire began about 11:45 a.m. and was contained at 12:30 p.m. Crews monitored the site to make sure the fire didn't spread.
George Graeff, 57, said he lives in the woods and was drinking a cup of coffee when he heard the explosion. He can't walk well and uses a cane. He left his things behind and hobbled as quickly as he could.
"It was either that or burn alive," he said as he waited by the fire to see if his tent was salvageable.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.