(ran PS edition of Pasco Times)
With the desertlike conditions showing no sign of letting up, fire officials are getting ready for the worst.
A suspicious fire scorched 5 acres of vacant land off Klosterman Road on Thursday morning, sparking concerns among fire officials about increasingly dry conditions throughout North Pinellas.
The fire spread rapidly near the Grassy Pointe and Trentwood Village subdivisions west of Alt. U.S. 19, but did not damage any homes.
Fire officials said the blaze probably started in a cleared area near Klosterman Road, where it appeared children played and had created a campfire area.
Evidence of matches was found near the area, said Capt. Don Sayre of the Tarpon Springs Fire Department.
"It was near-desert conditions," he said. "It didn't take anything for that brush to just take off."
There have been few significant brush fires in North Pinellas so far this year, but fire officials are gearing up for more.
The area is getting drier every day. A drought index shows that Pinellas County has reached 735 on a scale in which 0 is a swamp and 800 is a desert.
With each day that passes without rain, the number goes up 10 more points, said John DeWolfe, a forest ranger with the Florida Division of Forestry in North Pinellas.
"We are very worried about every area of Pinellas County," DeWolfe said.
He said his office has stopped sending employees to activities other than fighting fires.
Instead of doing fire prevention programs at schools and among residents, firefighters are being sent to active fires and to make sure fires from previous days haven't expanded, he said.
At the Oldsmar Fire Department, officials are taking preventive measures that will help contain fires to a small area.
Along with the Division of Forestry and utility companies, they have dug deep barriers in wooded areas to slow the spread of fires.
Representatives of the Oldsmar department also are urging residents to clean their gutters and trim tree branches away from their homes, Chief Scott McGuff said.
Fire officials are concerned that the rainy season won't necessarily solve their problems.
Rain will alleviate the drought conditions, but lightning could start numerous fires.
Jeff Parks, assistant chief of the East Lake Fire Department, recalled several lightning-caused fires last year, including brush fires in Brooker Creek Preserve.
With the dry conditions, he said, a lightning-sparked fire could travel quickly through the 8,500-acre preserve, which is bordered by homes.
"We're praying a lot," Parks said.