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Fire destroys house at former Dade City citrus estate

(ran PC edition)

The owner's son says the building was in good condition, and fire officials have ruled the blaze suspicious.

Fire destroyed an old estate home along River Road early Friday. All that remained by daybreak was the chimney and one corner of the old house.

Dade City Fire Department Capt. Joey Wubbena said the blaze was out of control when crews arrived shortly before 1 a.m., and firefighters took up defensive positions to keep it from spreading to the surrounding pine and citrus trees.

Crews from Zephyrhills and the San Antonio and Tri-Community volunteer fire departments assisted. There was no nearby water source, and firefighters had to make a 2{-mile drive on River Road to load water tankers to battle the blaze.

Wubbena said crews dumped about 35,000 gallons of water on the building during the five-hour battle. No one was injured.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation Friday. The building had power but was unoccupied. The owner's son, Danny O'Donnell, 50, lives in a travel trailer behind the house and said the building was in good shape and he often went inside.

O'Donnell, who uses a wheelchair to get around the 40-acre property, said there were no problems at the old house when he went to sleep Thursday night. He said a neighbor woke him with a telephone call sometime before 1 a.m. to make sure he wasn't inside the burning building.

"It's a shame," he said Friday. "It was a good old house."

The house was not insured, he said.

O'Donnell said his mother, Nina Mathews of St. Louis, had planned to someday move to the house and restore it.

He said the house was in relatively good shape, and he didn't believe the fire was caused by an electrical problem.

"Someone must have set it," he said.

The house, O'Donnell said, was a relic of the Pasco County citrus industry, but the groves surrounding it were badly damaged in the freezes of the 1980s. Much of the grove land has been overgrown by pine and other trees, although a few grapefruit trees could still be seen around the house Friday.

Fire Department Lt. Tony Hicks said the fire was ruled suspicious and nothing had been ruled out as a cause.

Anyone with information about the fire or who saw any activity around the house Thursday night is asked to call the Dade City Fire Department's investigation division at (352) 521-1496.