Some Tampa Bay area residents were forced to abandon their homes or avoid stretches of highways Saturday as several wildfires raged in Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
Residents in Lutz and New Port Richey evacuated their homes for a few hours as a wind-whipped 1,000-acre wildfire burned across the Starkey Wilderness Preserve in Pasco County. Three separate wildfires in Hills-borough County closed Interstate 75 to motorists for hours near Fletcher Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The recent fires are due at least in part to a statewide dry spell that has led to more than 100 wildfires in Florida and burn bans in several counties, including Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough.
Pasco County Emergency Management requested a voluntary evacuation of the Bexley Ranch subdivision, with about 50 homes east of the Suncoast Parkway on State Road 54, around 3 p.m. Saturday.
Officials said the fire was threatening to cross the Suncoast Parkway, which was closed in both directions between the State Roads 54 and 52 exits.
That stretch of road was expected to remain closed overnight. At a news conference Saturday evening, officials said they had 10 percent of the fire contained and that homes were no longer in danger. Helicopters made 42 passes with water to help put out the fire.
Neighbors in the Rosewood subdivision near River Ridge High School in New Port Richey expressed concern about the plumes of smoke rising close to their homes. Residents on Eclipse Court in the Rosewood neighborhood said the fire was just 200 yards behind their homes Saturday afternoon.
"We are packed and ready to go," said Jeannie Sampson of 12404 Eclipse Court. "Everybody is ready. We are very concerned. The fire is in an area where there's a lack of access. It's very, very dry. I've never seen a fire this big."
Another resident, Mike Barnett, said his biggest concern is that with a thousand residents in the subdivision, if the fire quickly turned, it might be difficult to get out.
"It would be dicey getting out if it charges at us," he said.
Officials said Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park will be closed today to provide access for fire crews.
Fires also burned Saturday in Hillsborough County. The northbound lanes of Interstate 75 were closed between Fletcher Avenue and Bruce B. Downs because of several brush fires, the Florida Highway Patrol reported. Saturday night, the interstate was open, the highway patrol said.
Three separate fires in the county affected about 200 acres. The fires were nearly 90 percent contained by Saturday evening, officials said.
Flatwoods Wilderness Park in Thonotosassa was evacuated and closed, but no homes were threatened, officials said.
Tampa police officers and Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies were on the scene, and two helicopters dropped water on the fires. The Florida Forest Service mobilized three tractors to fight the fires on the ground.
It's likely that hot, dry and windy conditions will continue, keeping these areas at risk of more flareups, said WTSP Ch. 10 meteorologist Ashley Batey.
"The winds will lighten over night but pick up again tomorrow," she said Saturday. "Unfortunately there's no rain in sight for the next several days, and with the drought conditions, this is a situation where it will get worse before it gets better."
The state's severe drought conditions have increased wildfires statewide, but Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam pointed out that arsonists have ignited about 320 wildfires this year.
Wildfires set by arsonists have burned more than 20,000 acres across the state, according to Putnam's office.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.