PORT RICHEY — Andy Fossa slowed his SUV on Friday when he saw the black column of smoke rising out of the woods, one of numerous fires in the past few months.
The Pasco Fire Rescue training chief pulled off Little Road onto Youth Lane, behind the DialAmerica office near Ridge Road. He followed a trail into the woods.
There he found James Nejedly, 46, sitting on an old couch under a makeshift tarp awning, reading Tribulation Force: the Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind.
Between them, a heap of garbage — a waterbed mattress, a plastic lawn chair and a grill grate — burned black.
"You need to put the fire out," he told Nejedly.
"No," the man replied.
He asked the man a few more times, with the same response. An investigator and a sheriff's deputy showed up. Firefighters quickly doused the flames.
Fossa said small fires like this one have caused larger brush fires lately.
With dry conditions, he said, even contained campfires are risky. Embers from one fire can blow hundreds of feet and cause another.
"You have leaves and embers around, and it takes off," he said.
That's what firefighters believe caused the Hudson fire this week that scorched more than 100 acres of woods, prompting the evacuation of more than 150 people. No one was hurt and no homes were damaged. Pasco fire marshal Donald Campbell said the blaze was started by teens having a bonfire in the woods. Firefighters spent the week snuffing out other flareups around the county.
Campbell said Pasco Fire Rescue will be at the County Commission meeting on Tuesday to suggest a burn ban.
"Everything out here right now is just too dry in Pasco," he said. "We don't recommend any type of burning at all."
Back beside the woods Friday, Nejedly leaned on a Fire Rescue SUV in handcuffs. Unless there is a burn ban, fires are legal in Pasco if they are ceremonial, recreational or for warmth.
Because the temperature was 90-plus degrees Friday afternoon and Nejedly was burning plastic, authorities ruled out those three exemptions. Nejedly also does not own the land.
He said he set up camp there in hopes of getting a job at DialAmerica. He was living on $25 a month in food stamps.
"I'm trying to get my life together," he said.
He was arrested on a charge of intentional or reckless burning of lands. He was being booked into Land O'Lakes jail on Friday evening.
Alex Orlando can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.