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Massive brush fire near Glen Lakes subdivision under control

Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2013 at 01:08 PM
WEEKI WACHEE -

It was 70 degrees and snowing Friday afternoon at the Coastal Way shopping center.

The snow was actually ashes raining down from a large cloud that divided the sky gray and blue from what began as a controlled burn by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on 200 acres in Chassahowitzka, just west of Glen Lakes.

It quickly became uncontrolled. By 5:30 p.m. Friday a blanket of smoke hovered over State Road 50 and pushed through traffic, and the 200-acre burn became a 350-acre burn.

Residents reported seeing the smoke from as far away as U.S. 41 and Cortez Boulevard.

“Oh my God,” said Caryl Meyer, watching flames crackle and climb up a tree three houses down from hers on Maybelle Drive inside the Glen Lakes golf club community. “I just bought this house today.”

Around 11:30 a.m. it was just smoking, but then that smoke started to accumulate and grow darker, and darker, and worse, and worse, she said.

“Then the tree caught fire, and I just about died because it was my best friend’s house,” Meyer said.

Wildfire Mitigation Specialist with the Withlacoochee Forestry Center Don Ruths said this is going to be a three- to five-day battle, yet.

“A wind shifted on them around 2 in the afternoon, and it went past the line and they looked for assistance,” Ruths said. In fact, that’s why he was there with the Citrus, Hernando and Pasco County Fire Rescue groups and the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office. “It will be smoking several days, and we’re watching U.S. 19 and we would have some concerns with smoke on U.S. 19.”

The conditions were good for controlled burning, Ruths said. There was just enough moisture to prevent a fire like this. Controlled burns are conducted to renew forests and make them less volatile when fires do occur and to reduce the likelihood of them spreading.

“Our only question is who started it, and why did it take so long to get it under control?” said Whit Voiers in his smoke-filled backyard where a flaming tree glowed in the distance. “Maybe they got to it as soon as they could, but it makes you wonder. These firefighters out here have been doing a great job.”

Hernando County Fire Rescue combated the fire nearby, dousing down the flames to protect the homes, then sealing the hoses closed and letting everything else burn; they were conserving water and in the process of waiting for another engine to bring water reinforcements.

“These local firemen are fabulous, and are explaining what’s going on, and reassuring,” Judy Voiers said. “They need to be commended.”

There was a fire hydrant down the road in front of the model home that a helicopter was dumping water buckets behind. The hydrant was later utilized at 4:45 p.m.

Anne Sich stood outside Friday morning watching the smoke billow.

“I stood and watched it for a long time,” Sich said. “I said, ‘Soon as I see flames, I’m getting out.’”

Sich got out, she said.

David Craighead, general manager of Glen Lakes, said maybe once a year there is a controlled burn in the area.

Friday his office fielded phone calls with questions about a controlled fire that by all appearances did not resemble that classification.

“They’re supposed to call us so we could tell our residents, and we got tons of calls about whether this was a controlled burn, but they don’t tell us like they’re supposed to,” Craighead said. “Otherwise we could tell people four days ahead of time there’s going to be a controlled burn.”

Craighead stood surrounded by smoke and mist from the running sprinklers and black water that fell from the helicopter splashing water overhead in a crescent, dousing flames that threatened the model home.

“If that helicopter wasn’t dropping water on that model home it would have caught fire,” Craighead said. “Thank God they did.”

Ruths said there were between 30 and 40 responders and 12 structures in the community were threatened. The helicopter swooping onto nearby ponds and lifting water buckets out to dump onto burning trees 150 feet away from homes was provided by the forestry service.

Firefighters issued residents a voluntary evacuation order, according to officials and witnessed by Joe Granda, who was installing a home theatre system in a home before the fire kicked up.

“You could just see the tips of the flames above that house, and firefighters came by saying, ‘You may have to leave,’” Granda said. About five houses were threatened on Maybelle Drive. “The helicopter dropped water on the roofs of all the houses in the cul-de-sac, and firefighters recommended everyone turn their sprinklers on.”

One question lingered with residents, along with the smell of smoke in their clothes.

“We want an answer for what went wrong,” Voiers said.

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