Aleck and Lesley Alissandratos could feel the flames racing across the marsh toward their home, the stinging heat and smoke intensifying as the raging wildfire consumed the woods up to their roadway.
"I've never seen anything like it," Aleck Alissandratos said Friday as he surveyed the seared ground near his home on Floreana Avenue off of Cortez Boulevard. "The flames were 50 feet high. It didn't look like it was going to stop."
Firefighters from the state Division of Forestry, Hernando County Fire Rescue and Spring Hill Fire Rescue saved homes belonging to Alissandratos and their neighbors from the fire that began Wednesday evening near Pine Island, apparently from a lightning strike.
About 50 firefighters from all three agencies continued with mop-up operations Friday. Crews using brush trucks and bulldozers combed through about 1,300 acres of blackened forest looking for signs of potential flare-ups. A helicopter with a 300-gallon bucket delivered water to otherwise inaccessible areas.
Residents who were evacuated from the area were allowed to return Thursday night. However, the section of Cortez Boulevard leading to county parks at Pine Island and Bayport remained closed Friday to public traffic due to smoke and firefighters working in the area.
Don Ruths, a wildlife mitigation specialist and public information officer for the Withlacoochee Forestry Center, said the fire broke out Wednesday about a half-mile north of Cortez Boulevard near Pine Island.
The fire appeared to be under control by midday Thursday, but gusting winds from an approaching thunderstorm flared the flames and pushed them south toward Mary's Fish Camp where the fire jumped the road.
Shifting winds steered the flames west toward Bayport, forcing firefighters to battle the blaze on several fronts.
"The winds were kicking our butts," Hernando firefighter Scott Carbone recalled Friday.
Bayport Inn manager Deanna Myers said at around 6 p.m. the 40-year-old restaurant and bar was nearly surrounded by the blaze. Employees and customers watched as firefighters raced to wet down the building's wood siding.
"You've got to give those guys credit for the great job they did," Myers said. "They never stopped battling."
The inn was all but deserted Friday, save for the fire crews who gathered at a makeshift command post that had been set up in the parking lot.
Ruths said the fire may have been an uninvited blessing for the area along Cortez Boulevard, which is owned and managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Drought conditions coupled with thick underbrush had created a dangerous tinderbox.
"Whenever you have a large fuel load that's not easily accessible for clearing, the potential for a large fire exists," Ruths said.
Ruths said Friday evening that the fire was more than 90 percent contained and that crews will likely remain to monitor the area throughout next week.
Hernando County community relations coordinator Brenda Frazier said Pine Island Park and Bayport Park will reopen to visitors today.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1435.