BAYPORT — A brush fire in this gulfside hamlet threatened about a dozen homes and the local watering hole Thursday afternoon, prompting officials to evacuate residents.
Officials were hesitant to say the fire was completely under control Thursday evening.
"We are being cautiously optimistic and taking aggressive action," said Don Ruths, a spokesman for the state Division of Forestry division, as he drove west along Cortez Boulevard approaching the Bayport Inn through clouds of thick gray smoke.
Pockets of flames still burned on both sides of the road. Firefighters with soot-covered faces resting near trucks and bulldozers chugged water. A helicopter with a 300-gallon bucket dangling beneath it whirred overhead.
By Thursday evening, the fire had burned about 600 acres on the north and south sides of Cortez and the east and west sides of Pine Island Drive, leaving an open but still hazy vista of charred and smoking palms and marsh grass, and reducing visibility on the road to less than 300 feet.
Fire crews doused several homes and the more than 40-year-old inn, actually a bar and restaurant today, to protect them from encroaching flames, Ruths said. "It's lucky it's still there," he said.
Some visitors and residents were stranded at Pine Island's McKethan Park to the north and at Bayport Park as crews worked to get the fire under control.
About 6 p.m., as the winds abated and visibility improved, crews decided to evacuate those people. Several dozen cars and trucks, many towing boats, streamed west on Cortez, past sheriff's deputies who had blocked off the road at Shoal Line Boulevard.
Officials said the fire was likely sparked by lightning Wednesday evening in a marshy area north of Cortez. Crews from the forestry division and Hernando County Fire Rescue responded and remained overnight.
They thought they had the fire under control by midday Thursday, but gusting winds from a nearby thunderstorm created horrendous downdrafts that pushed the flames south across Cortez and Pine Island Drive "in numerous places," Ruths said.
"The next thing we knew it was threatening homes and the Bayport Inn," he said.
Crews from Spring Hill Fire Rescue were called in, and Hernando Beach Fire Rescue was put on alert.
Jocie Mancuso, a manager at the inn, was working when officials arrived to tell them to evacuate.
"I almost had a heart attack," Mancuso said as she stood with a crowd of inn employees at a corner of Cortez and Shoal Line. "There was fire everywhere. I started screaming for everyone to leave."
Other residents trying to make their way into Pine Island and Bayport gathered at Cortez and Shoal Line. Ralph King was trying to get home to his mother, who was waiting in their Pine Island home for King to take her out to dinner for her 80th birthday.
King had left Pine Island early Thursday afternoon when the roads were still open. But the smoke seemed to be thickening.
"I could tell it was getting bigger," King said.
The fire also sparked a bit of irony.
Ruths said the forestry division and Hernando County Fire Rescue had planned to be in Hernando Beach anyway Thursday night for a "Fire Wise" public seminar on the dangers of wildfires and to offer strategies on how to minimize danger to homes.
Instead, officials who'd planned to speak were working the fire.
"I told them if they show up dressed the way they are now, they'll make their point," Ruths said.
This fire is one of many that have ravaged Hernando County within the past month. James Rosenquist, a well-known artist, lost his Aripeka home and studio in an 80-acre brush fire in April.
Ryan Strong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (352) 544-1630. Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or at (352) 848-1431.