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Two Pasco wildfires are contained; two home sustain minor damage

Gerald E. Martin, 71, dampens the area around his yard in hopes of keeping the fire near Beacon Square subdivision at bay.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Gerald E. Martin, 71, dampens the area around his yard in hopes of keeping the fire near Beacon Square subdivision at bay.

HOLIDAY — His wife was sobbing but there wasn't anything he could do.

He stayed with the house as long as he could, ever since he first smelled smoke Wednesday afternoon and saw the flames deep in the woods and grabbed a water hose and sprayed the yard and the patio and the roof, anything he could reach. Those wooded acres are the reason Bill and Patty Criscuolo bought this house, on the dead end of Beacon Square Drive two years ago after their kids were grown and gone. Sitting back there on their deck, sipping a drink after work, it felt like they were isolated from the world — just the two of them, their dogs, the trees, the birds.

The blaze sounded like a campfire, crackling, but then it got louder and then it was like screaming. Bill could feel the heat of the flames and he grabbed their two dogs and retreated down a side street to call Patty, who was at work. "I think the house is on fire," he said. She raced over there but by then all of the woods were on fire — dozens of acres, the first wildfire of the season.

The smoke was so thick, it was like walking through acrid soup. But Bill tied a bandanna around his face and sneaked up through firefighters, as far as he could, to see if the house was still there. He needed to tell Patty. At first, he couldn't see it at all. He thought it was gone. But then the wind shifted and he could see the frame, barely.

"I think it's still there," he told Patty, when he got back to her.

It was, as well as all of the other homes threatened by the 42-acre blaze. By Thursday night, the fire was 90 percent contained, said David Fogler, a supervisor with the Florida Division of Forestry.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, he said. The brief rainstorm that hit Pasco County on Thursday helped a little, "but it wasn't enough," Fogler said. He predicts that Florida is in for a terrible fire season because of dry conditions.

Another brush fire that erupted Wednesday night in San Antonio is contained, said Anthony Petellat of the forestry division. That fire, which was on Cannon Ranch south of State Road 52, burned about 300 acres of pasture.

The Cannon Ranch fire, which is still under investigation, shouldn't affect any development in the area, which is set to have 4,373 homes. Developers for the community, to be called Bella Verde, recently got county permission to move the build-out date from next year to 2017. They blamed the housing collapse.

On Beacon Square Drive the day after the fire, many back yards facing the woods were scorched. Many had burned front yards, from hot embers floating from the fire. Two homes had minor damage. One blistered and warped a bit from heat. At the other home, crews put out a fire on the Akeys' back porch — where Rubbermaid tubs full of holiday decorations were stored.

"Who cares," said Tim Akey, as he found out about the damage from a firefighter Wednesday. He also learned a window shattered.

"I hated that window anyway," he joked. He was jubilant that his house was still there and that he and his family were safe.

Families were allowed back into their homes Wednesday night, but Criscuolo couldn't sleep. With the lights off inside and everything black, he could see dozens of tiny, orange fires in the distance — hot spots, burning. He kept his shoes by the back door, in case he needed to run and get his water hose again.

As daylight came, he sat outside and watched plumes of smoke, rising thick in the distance. The fire stopped maybe 20 feet from his deck — where embers the size of saucers had been flying.

"I can't believe it," he said. "I didn't think we would have a home today."

The only damage he has seen so far is a hole in a chair cushion, the size of a cigarette burn.

This weekend, in the house they bought for peace, he and his wife are making a survival kit.

"Just in case," he said.

Times reporter Lisa Buie contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com.

Two Pasco wildfires are contained; two home sustain minor damage 02/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 9:13pm]

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