Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

Firefighters in Hernando, Pasco counties battling brush fires fueled by Florida's drought

Just as crews knocked down a wildfire in Hernando County, two other brush fires flared up in Pasco County.

In Hernando County, firefighting crews had contained about 90 percent of what they're calling the "water tower fire" by Monday afternoon. They hoped to have the fire fully contained overnight after it consumed 1,100 acres.

The more pressing concern Monday evening were the two smaller brush fires off State Road 52 and Hays Road in Pasco County that firefighters were trying to contain.

One was a slow-moving fire called the "Silver Palms fire" that burned about 20 acres. It was 200 to 300 yards from the nearest home in the Suncoast Lakes subdivision of about 50 homes. Officials briefly called for a voluntary evacuation of the subdivision, but later rescinded it and shut down a local evacuation shelter.

The other brush fire was the "campground fire" that consumed about 55 acres near the Serenova Tract in the Starkey Wilderness Preserve. Pasco officials estimated they had contained 20 percent of the Silver Palms fire and 55 percent of the campground fire.

Those wildfires come on the heels of a grass fire that quickly spread Friday and shut down rush-hour traffic at the Interstate 275 and Gandy Boulevard interchange in St. Petersburg.

State fire officials expect more of the same until the summer's rainy season starts while drought conditions persist across the region.

"This part of the state is experiencing a lot of drought and we haven't had a lot of rain," said Florida Forest Service spokeswoman Judith Tear. "So yes we anticipate a far more active wildfire season."

Hernando County's water tower fire started in the Weekiwachee Preserve last week from a lightning strike during storms associated with a cold front that pushed through the state Wednesday night into Thursday morning.

"When that cold front pushed through last week, it came with a lot of lightning, and unfortunately for Hernando County, it came with very little rain," Tear said.

It smoldered for several days and grew to about 2 acres by the time someone called 911 to alert authorities about 7 p.m. Saturday. That night, though, gusty winds blew embers about 100 yards and fanned the flames to their full strength.

In its early stages, the fire threatened First Baptist Church of Hernando Beach and two homes, one of which was voluntarily evacuated. Firefighters have since deemed those structures safe and reopened Shoal Line Boulevard, which was closed near the fire.

Firefighting agencies used helicopters, engines, brush trucks and bulldozers to fight the blaze, which was contained within the 11,000-acre Weekiwachee Preserve. But they struggled to maneuver heavy equipment through the marshy landscape. On Sunday, crews dumped more than 160,000 gallons of water on the fire from the air. They also lit new fires within the containment line to burn fuel, a technique called backburning.

Winds pushed heavy smoke into Hernando and Pasco counties over the weekend. There was a possibility that could continue for days as the fire smolders. Officials urged motorists to use caution on the roadways in the event of limited visibility.

And, officials warned, if you drive through smoke, stick to your low-beam headlights.

"The smoke is like dense fog," Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis said.

Fire can be good for the habitat, as officials will often use prescribed burns to manage the land. Tear couldn't say if the water tower fire will result in any environmental benefit.

"Prescribed burning does not burn as hard as a wildfire," Tear said. "So a wildfire tends to burn a little bit hotter, so there might have been more damage to some of the trees."

One concern with muck fires is they're prone to reignition because they can smolder underground long after the flames are gone. Crews planned to monitor the terrain to ensure no flare-ups.

"This fire could smolder for a couple weeks," Tear said. "That's why we're trying to burn those fuels out and take away as much fuel as possible."

As drought conditions remain high in Hernando — and all parts south of Interstate 4 — county commissioners were set to consider a burn ban at today's meeting.

"People wonder why it can be wet and burn. Well, you have living proof right behind you," said Hernando County Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Kevin Carroll. "So imagine the areas that are dry throughout the county and what could potentially happen should somebody not be paying attention or somebody flick a cigarette on the side of the road."

The drought conditions were even worse in Pasco County, which had to deal with two brush fires near each other late Monday night. Firefighters were working furiously to make sure those two fires don't get any worse, said Pasco County spokesman Doug Tobin.

"You never know, that's why we put a lot of resources on them as soon as we can," he said. "As dry as it is, and as windy as it is, fires can pick up very quickly and move."

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