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New year, old fear: Fireworks and fires

Rain this week could ease tinderbox conditions, but Hernando County leaders caution against welcoming 2001 with a bang.

State Forestry officer Karen Lovett is looking to the weekend with concern.

The drought is worsening in Hernando and its surrounding counties, and brush fires are popping up everywhere at an average clip of two to three a day. Rains predicted for Thursday will only slightly dampen the conditions.

So when she thinks of New Year's Eve, she also thinks of people setting off fireworks and, possibly, setting fires.

"It can get in the trees," said Lovett, who works in the Brooksville office of the Division of Forestry. "With the freezes, the leaves are dead. It catches that way. And with the freezes, the grass is dead also. It's been breezy, and the winds will push it."

Lovett recommends that people find other noisemakers in 2001. If she had her way, the government would ban fireworks.

She's not alone.

Bill Appleby, Hernando County emergency management officer, said he would prefer that the county allow only licensed, authorized fireworks displays. That way, he said, fire departments would be on call for potential problems.

"But the random activation of these fireworks is something that should be a concern for everyone," Appleby said. "Any time when we have conditions like we have and folks firing off fireworks at random and at will, certainly there's a potential. All you need to do is look at the Polk County fire over the weekend to know the potential is there."

Firefighters had a 2,600-acre brush fire outside Haines City about 95 percent contained Tuesday but did not expect it to be fully out for several days. The fire started Saturday.

A 60-acre fire ignited in Lake County on Tuesday, and two small fires erupted in Hernando County. None were related to fireworks, but some officials said fireworks might cause future fires.

"I have my concerns because where there's fireworks and sparklers, there's fire," County Commissioner Diane Rowden said. "My preference would be to have a ban."

Not being an expert, however, Rowden said she would defer to the professionals the county has hired to make the final call. And the top brass did not appear inclined to call for a ban just yet.

"We are very concerned about the drought," Fire Rescue Chief Mike Nickerson said, noting that the Keetch-Byram index for the county had reached a high of 688 in the past 24 hours. The index goes from zero (no drought threat) to 800 (extreme drought).

Charlie Paxton, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the rain could make a difference, but it depends on how much falls and where. Those variables can't be guessed, he said.

By New Year's Eve, Paxton said, the weather will again be dry and partly cloudy. Conditions will be better than not getting rain, he said, "but by how much, it's hard to tell."

Nickerson said he planned to monitor the situation and re-evaluate today.

In late March, the county faced a nearly identical situation.

The drought index hovered just over 600, and it had just rained. In response, county commissioners banned all outdoor burning, including the use of fireworks, without a permit.

Just over two months later, as the drought index surpassed 700, commissioners issued a total fireworks ban that lasted until late June, when the drought index had dropped below 150.

Two weeks ago, faced with similar possibilities, commissioners decided not to enact a ban on Nickerson's advice. Commissioners now are waiting to see if he changes his recommendation before changing their stance.

"If the circumstances have changed, our management can certainly respond to that and bring it to us at the next meeting," Commissioner Nancy Robinson. "If it needs to be done to protect Hernando County, certainly I would like the appropriate action taken."

In the meantime, all agencies cautioned against using fireworks, despite the lack of an official ban.

"If people are willing to hold off on it, that is our suggestion," said Tom Challis, a captain with the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District. "It is dry out there."

If someone still feels compelled, the experts offered this advice: Light fireworks in well-cleared areas that are paved or dirt, keep a garden hose and water available, and use the smaller types of fireworks.

Fireworks sales in Hernando County have been "very good" but below last year's numbers, which were exceptionally high, said Sharon Hunnewell, president of Galaxy Fireworks, the only company with permits to sell in the county.

She rejected the idea of banning fireworks to prevent fires.

"Our water level is down," Hunnewell acknowledged, "but if people use fireworks safely and with common sense, I think they're fine."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.