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Hernando Beach community stands by volunteer firefighters

Volunteer fire departments are like old-fashioned mom-and-pop stores.

We tend to like the idea of them — that services we need can be provided by our friends and neighbors. But they are pretty much doomed as communities get larger and residents more demanding.

At some point, we want a SuperTarget and we want our firefighters to be pros.

That's what came to mind when I read about the weekend brush fire that wiped out the studio and home of famed pop artist Jim Rosenquist.

Fighting this fire was mainly the responsibility of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department. Maybe, I thought, its time had come.

For those of you who don't know the details, a brush fire broke out in the coastal hammock in Aripeka about 3 a.m. Saturday. Hernando Beach volunteers put the fire out and, before leaving at 10 a.m., called Division of Forestry firefighters who had been dispatched from their station north of Brooksville and told them not to bother responding.

Then, that afternoon, the fire reignited — or a separate one started, according to Hernando Beach Chief Steve Knowlton. Burning rapidly and unpredictably, it spread both east and west of Indian Bay Road, consuming 62 acres of brush, as well as perhaps millions of dollars worth of Rosenquist's art.

On Tuesday, representatives from the half-dozen departments that responded to the afternoon fire met for a critique to discuss how they could have fought it better.

The biggest safety concern: Hernando Beach volunteers parked their personal vehicles on Indian Bay, blocking the only escape route, said Hernando County Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Frank DeFrancesco:

"We had fire on both sides of the road, moving very quickly. We had units in the middle (of the road), and we had the possibility of firefighters being trapped.''

DeFrancesco also questioned whether Knowlton should have been quicker to call for help.

Knowlton said he requested aid from Forestry as soon as he arrived at the fire, 12 minutes after it was reported, and called for a county tanker truck about nine minutes after that. He summoned Spring Hill Fire Rescue, the closest department, 18 minutes later — just as the fire jumped across Indian Bay and headed toward Rosenquist's property.

A resident reported the fire Saturday afternoon as "flames kicking back up again (in) the same location as the earlier fire,'' which raises the question of whether Knowlton should have allowed the Forestry crew to continue to the scene in the morning and make sure the first fire was out cold.

No, Knowlton said, when he arrived in the afternoon he could clearly see the second fire's starting point about 200 yards north of the first one, and a report of kids running away from the area suggested it might have been intentionally set.

Even if Hernando's best departments had been on the scene from the start, firefighters agreed, there's no guarantee they could have saved Rosenquist's property.

Aripeka is a dead zone for radios, making communication difficult. Water had to be trucked in from a distant hydrant. With the flames fed by drought-parched brush and high, shifting winds, "this was just an out-of-control fire, fault of nobody,'' said Bob Kanner, a former Spring Hill Fire Rescue commissioner and an emergency medical instructor.

"As far as I can see, Hernando Beach is a bunch of hardworking volunteers who fight fires because of their hearts and not their wallets," Kanner said.

That's the impression I got when I visited the department's station on Shoal Line Boulevard Tuesday evening for one of its twice-weekly training sessions.

Before practicing firefighting skills, the volunteers checked and cleaned their trucks and equipment. And Knowlton struck me as a guy you'd be lucky to have as a neighbor — a Springstead High teacher and retired police officer who for years has been willing to roll out of bed at any hour to fight fires without pay.

The department received generally high marks from a consultant hired last year to study whether the county would benefit from a consolidated, professional fire department. A single department would be ideal, the report said, but it also noted that Hernando Beach's response times were slightly shorter than the county's. And it costs homeowners $66 annually compared to $194 for the county department.

That's not to say this system has no drawbacks. Most of its volunteers are in their late teens or early 20s, donating their time in exchange for training that will allow them to move on to a professional department. Even Knowlton acknowledged they may have been overwhelmed by Saturday afternoon's fire.

"None of our guys had seen anything like it,'' he said. "That's the kind of fire you see on TV from California.''

A Division of Forestry investigator will determine whether the volunteers made any serious mistakes fighting the fire. Meanwhile, residents remain loyal to the department, said Fran Baird, a longtime board member of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association: "Everybody is happy the way it is.''

And, whether Hernando Beach keeps its volunteer department is, as it should be, up to the people who live there.

Hernando Beach community stands by volunteer firefighters 04/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 7:47pm]
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