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Burn never quite catches fire

As a helicopter flew just above the treetops in a corner of the Withlacoochee State Forest on Tuesday morning, forestry officials used torches to set rings of fire in the underbrush.

Soon, crew members inside the helicopter began dropping plastic balls filled with chemicals designed to ignite after hitting the ground. Some of those balls ignited. Some didn't.

A stubborn fog and humidity that kept the ground damp forced officials to scrap a controlled burn that was supposed to send flames spreading across 1,200 acres of the state forest. Forestry officials burn land each year to control growth that poses a wildfire threat.

Ironically, during the peak danger season for forest fires, Mother Nature keeps refusing to cooperate. Forestry spokesman Gene Madden said the division has been planning to burn the southeast corner of the forest since late December. Rain, wind and other weather conditions keep canceling the exercise.

"Sometimes, you can't force things," Madden said Tuesday after he and more than 30 law enforcement and fire personnel gathered in the forest for the controlled burn.

Tuesday started promisingly, with briefings and a lesson on helicopter safety. Ernie Smith of the forestry division gave careful instructions on what to do if the helicopter crashed, showing the men gathered around him how to unscrew the power supply to avoid an explosion or fire. He demonstrated a machine that drops large gumball-sized plastic balls from the helicopter, igniting just after impact.

Chuck Schneider showed the men a map of the area to be burned and assigned each person to a different spot. Brooksville Fire Chief Jim Adkins was the safety officer, meaning he had authority to force personnel out of the area if they did not wear proper equipment or were not following procedures.

The trucks rolled to their assigned positions, the helicopter lifted off, and smoke began to rise from the ground.

Then Smith radioed that he and pilot Joe Poteat could not see the ground clearly enough to drop the chemical-filled balls.

"There's so many trails out here, it's just confusion," Smith said over the helicopter radio as he flew over the Croom Motorcycle Area. "I can't really see what's going on."

They changed their course but then realized several balls sat flameless on the forest floor.

Despite the experts' failure at setting the fire forestwide, 12-year forestry division veteran Larry Scott said he has seen such burns turn out too successful, leaving a few extra charred acres. The majority of runaway planned fires occur on private land, he said.

"I've seen people burn five to a hundred acres of their neighbor's property," Scott said while waiting for Tuesday's fire to get rolling. He said anyone who wants to burn underbrush can contact the forestry division for help. For a fee, forestry workers will set the fire and control it.

Prices for supervision and assistance vary. Madden said those wanting to handle their own controlled burn should contact the forestry division at 796-5650 for a free permit.

"This is a very dry period for this state, and the threat of wildfire is very real and very serious," he said.

Officials managed to at least burn a partial border Tuesday of the 1,200 acres on the fire plan, leaving large patches of charred earth and white ash that lay on the ground like a light snow. An unpredictable wind that threatens to blow smoke across Interstate 75 will scrap the burn for the time being, Madden said. He was not sure Tuesday when officials will return to try again.