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A spark could unleash inferno

All the elements _ dry brush, desertlike conditions _ are present to produce a fire in Pinellas like those that consumed buildings and acres elsewhere.

To the south, a fire has raged across 5,000 acres of remote wilderness.

To the east, flames have devoured buildings in a busy city.

To the north, firefighters fought eight blazes in one 24-hour period in Hernando County.

And here in Pinellas County, so far spared a major conflagration, fire officials say something as simple as the flick of a cigarette butt could spark similar devastation.

"I'm very worried about having a major fire in Pinellas County," said Dwayne Booth, assistant director of Pinellas County fire and EMS administration. "I hate to attribute anything to luck, but we have been very fortunate we haven't had a major fire so far."

The intensely dry conditions that have fed the monstrous fires in neighboring counties are apparent here in the yellowing fronds of palm trees and brown patches in lawns. Pinellas County is one of the driest spots in the state, with a drought index measurement of more than 700 on a scale in which 800 represents desert conditions.

There is no relief in the immediate weather forecast.

So as dramatic images of flames leaping from Sarasota County and Ybor City abound, fire officials here are taking preventive measures where they can and monitoring the horizon for telltale smoke. And they are hoping residents here don't do something careless that could spark a blaze in the woods, in a yard or on a city street.

"We're very anxious," said Clearwater Fire Marshal Randy Hinder. "The drought conditions and the potential out there due to the conditions are extremely, extremely dangerous. Everyone just has to be very, very careful."

Even a cigarette butt would be enough. Firefighters in cities around the county have been extinguishing small fires that have started in the dried grass of road medians after a smoker tossed a lit cigarette out a car window.

"They have all been very minor, but it's that dry," said Dunedin fire Chief Bud Meyer. "You could see areas go up in a matter of minutes. That fire will spread faster than you can run."

In North Pinellas, the threat is heightened because there are thousands of homes either in the woods or bordering them. Fire officials are recommending residents trim tree branches away from their homes.

Brooker Creek Preserve alone has 8{ miles of homes along its edges. The 8,500-acre preserve is the largest wooded area in the county, and in June, wildfires scorched 500 acres.

Last month, the East Lake Fire Department moved an extra firefighter and its brush and water trucks to its main station in Lansbrook because it's easier to get into Brooker Creek from there, Lt. Bill Walker said.

But it is not just nature preserves that are at risk. Firefighters are also concerned about the many popular wooded parks such as Lake Seminole Park in Seminole and Hammock Park in Dunedin.

In Oldsmar, the Fire Department is digging deep ditches in wooded areas to help contain a fire should it start.

Even in St. Petersburg, fire officials say they worry about the wooded northern part of the county. While St. Petersburg has more old, wooden houses that burn more quickly, it does not have a significant amount of wooded land, said St. Petersburg Operations Chief Bill Jolley.

"Our concern is more dealing with the acreage in north county that could catch fire, and we'd be sending units there," Jolley said. "Those are the kinds of things we have to plan for, doing without one or two engines for a day."

Pinellas County has not been fire-free in this drought. A brush fire ignited Thursday in Tarpon Springs after children apparently created a campfire. The fire spread quickly over 5 acres before it was extinguished.

Clearwater firefighters contained three fires last week, Hinder said. And Seminole firefighters extinguished a mobile home fire last week, said Chief Vicki Murphy. With all the fires, the potential for them to spread in these dry conditions is enormous.

"A mobile home catches on fire and any trees or brush around the mobile home is more likely to ignite," Murphy said. "A house fire, a car fire. . . . As the embers go up in the air, you have to be careful."

A few weeks ago, Booth, of the county fire and EMS administration, said he attended a meeting with officials from the Florida Division of Forestry.

"They said they felt like Pinellas County was a major news media event waiting to happen. All the conditions are here to have a major fire," Booth said. "It's really frightening to me that officials are looking at Pinellas County and saying we have all the ingredients here for a major event."

How to minimize

the threat of fire

+ Don't throw cigarette butts on the ground.

+ Don't drive a car over brush or dried grass.

+ Don't set a barbecue grill in the grass.

+ Do heed the statewide ban on all outdoor burning.

+ Do maintain the hoses and burner on propane grills.

+ Do place grills on a non-combustible surface.

+ Do clear your yard and gutters of brush.