Monday, January 22, 2018
Public safety

Fierce brush fire in Polk scorches acres and delivers warning: Dry season has arrived

RIVER RANCH — Jim Wilkins was in his yard working on his boat and didn't notice the flames nearing his southeast Polk County house on Wednesday, not until a neighbor called and told him to get out.

He grabbed his wife, and she grabbed her wallet and laptop. They didn't bother to lock up as they leaped in the car and, like so many others, fled a Florida wildfire. They could feel the heat breathing down their necks as they drove.

"All you could see on either side of the road were walls of flames," he said Friday.

Days of fires scorched the rural Central Florida landscape this week, blanketing roads in smoke, consuming camp facilities, destroying about a dozen homes and, according to authorities, stealing the last breath from someone's pet dog.

South of State Road 60, strong winds spit flames thousands of feet forward, as forestry crews waged war against an inferno that would blacken 5,000 acres.

Wilkins, a man who likes to be prepared, lost $5,000 worth of nonperishable foods he kept in metal drums in the woods, he said. Fire singed his grapefruit and avocado trees.

He lives in a region some might consider the middle of nowhere, vast tracts of scrub brush and pine-treed land that motorists see on their way to Yeehaw Junction and the east coast.

Among the hardest hit areas there was River Ranch Acres, a private recreational haven for hunting and mud bogging off County Road 630.

"The fire started about two days ago, and it's been jumping around ever since," Josh Hutcheson, director of the River Ranch Property Owners Association, said Friday. "Yesterday, around 3 p.m., there was a mandatory evacuation, and no one was let in to get any of their belongings from their camp.

"We finally got a handle on it today, but there are still hot spots all over the place, still fires popping up everywhere. We're beating them down hard as we can."

At week's end, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam declared a partial victory, thanking emergency workers for their efforts and thanking God for a half-inch of rain.

But he also offered a sobering warning: Dry season, which runs through April, has just begun.

"The entire peninsula with the exception of the Panhandle is in dry conditions, and we encourage everyone to be very vigilant about burning outdoors, burning trash, fireworks, anything where a fire can get away from you," Putnam said after touring the region in a helicopter.

"The similarities between this year and the 1998 fire season are pretty hard to ignore."

Florida's 1998 wildfires, historic for their appetite, burned about 500,000 acres and, by official accounts, cost the state at least $640 million.

And that fire season, like this one, came on the heels of an El Niño year, Putnam noted, in which record rainfall produced vegetation that suddenly dried up and created ideal fuel.

The brush fire forced the evacuation of at least 800 residences on Wednesday, according to Polk County Fire Rescue.

"Our hearts break for those who lost their homes," Putnam said. "But it could have been a whole lot worse than it was. This was an all-hands-on-deck moment and, as a result, a lot of homes were saved."

At times the smoke plummeted visibility to zero, forcing the Florida Highway Patrol to close County Road 630 and State Road 60. Both roads were reopened later Friday morning.

Putnam said there was still an active fire response Friday as more than 40 personnel from state and local agencies continue to put out hot spots. The majority of the fire, though, was contained, he said.

There were no reported human deaths or injuries.

The damage at times seemed capricious and random, as fires flared up and died down, reducing some trees to stumps while barely touching others.

Nick Lytle, 53, was out running errands when fire neared the camper trailer where he has been living on County Road 630.

Newly released from prison for a sexual battery conviction, he had few possessions. The only one that was irreplaceable, he said, was the brown leather Bible that had helped him rediscover his faith while incarcerated.

It was around 11 a.m. Wednesday when he went to Walmart to buy groceries and the post office to send letters. When he tried to go back home, the fire had spread and emergency workers turned him away. He heard from a friend that his trailer burned, but he returned the next day to good news. Charred ground surrounded it, but the trailer itself, and his Bible, were untouched.

Even his three outdoor propane tanks were okay.

"I'm in a state of shock, still," he said. "I felt joy, excitement and an overwhelming gratitude that He was still looking out for me despite everything I done."

Times staff writer Samantha Putterman and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @ADawsonwrites

     
         
Comments

Hillsborough diver who died in Eagle’s Nest Cave was adventurous but experienced

Davin Brannon was a pilot, a spearfisherman, an avid cave and open-water diver and an experienced all-around adventurer, said those close to him ."I guess you could say he died doing what he loved," his cousin Pam Kirven said. "But I also know he’d n...
Updated: 5 hours ago

Deputies: 18-year-old speeding on U.S. 19 faces charges of DUI, fleeing scene

PALM HARBOR — A speeding driver on U.S. 19 refused to stop for deputies and took off, later rear-ending a car and injuring three people early Sunday morning, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.A little after 1:30 a.m., Kingzig Montanez...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Woman dies after falling ‘several decks’ from a balcony on a Carnival cruise

Woman dies after falling ‘several decks’ from a balcony on a Carnival cruise

A woman sailing on a Carnival Cruise Line ship from Jacksonville fell from her cabin’s balcony and died Friday.Doral-based Carnival Cruise Line spokesman Vance Gulliksen confirmed the death Saturday, saying in a statement that the incident occurred e...
Published: 01/21/18
Diver from Dover dies in treacherous Eagle’s Nest cave

Diver from Dover dies in treacherous Eagle’s Nest cave

WEEKI WACHEE — The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday investigated the death of a Hillsborough County man in the Eagle’s Nest, an underwater network of caves where at least 11 others have died since 1981.Even experienced divers have lost th...
Published: 01/20/18

Bicyclist dead after being hit by car in Pinellas Park

PINELLAS PARK — A bicyclist is dead after he was hit by a car just before 10 a.m. Saturday morning, police said.Police were still investigating the crash in the 8700 block of 49th Street N late Saturday morning.Police shut down northbound 49th Street...
Published: 01/20/18

Motorcyclist crashes into Subaru while trying to flee Pinellas deputies

CLEARWATER — A 21-year-old fleeing from deputies on a motorcycle crashed into car while speeding away from a cruiser Friday, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Michael Brown, of Clearwater, was recklessly driving his 2016...
Published: 01/20/18

Clearwater man in critical condition after medical episode while driving

DUNEDIN — A 60-year-old Clearwater man who likely had a medical episode while driving is now in the hospital with life-threatening injuries after rolling over his car, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. A Largo police off...
Published: 01/20/18

Four people linked to Tampa carjacking captured hours later

TAMPA — It took officers just 27 minutes Friday night to capture four people who they said stole a car from its owner.The incident started outside the Ybor Coffee Shop at 5:45 a.m. A group approached the driver as he sat in his 2010 Toyota Corolla. T...
Published: 01/19/18

Florida National Guard soldier killed, five injured in Sebring crash

SEBRING — A soldier with the Florida National Guard was killed and five others were hospitalized after a multi-vehicle crash on Friday, officials said.The crash took place at about 1 p.m. at the intersection of U.S. 27 and Hammock Road.The soldiers ...
Published: 01/19/18
Two New Port Richey men accused of stealing $11,000 in cellphone merchandise

Two New Port Richey men accused of stealing $11,000 in cellphone merchandise

NEW PORT RICHEY — Two New Port Richey men face charges after Pasco County deputies say they stole about $11,000 worth of cellphones and cellphone equipment at a Metro PCS store on State Road 54.Robert Jackson and Ronald Hartshorn were arrested Wednes...
Published: 01/19/18