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Firefighters bring raging prescribed burn in western Hernando under control

WEEKI WACHEE — Carolyne Webb watched the flames through a stand of cypress trees behind her house when a helicopter dived down from the sky with water to douse the blaze.

"I'm so glad these guys are on top of it; otherwise, we would be in huge trouble," said Webb, who lives on Mobile Circle in Glen Lakes. "The firefighters saved the day."

Webb and her neighbors in the gated golf course community west of U.S. 19 got a scare Friday afternoon when a prescribed burn flared out of control in the adjacent Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. The blaze threatened about a dozen homes, and though none sustained damage, the flames came within feet in a few cases, said Hernando County fire Chief Mike Rampino.

No residents or firefighters were injured.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission started the burn about 10 a.m. and had planned to end it about 2 p.m. Then the wind changed direction, prompting officials to call for help from the Florida Division of Forestry and fire departments from Spring Hill and Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties, said forestry division spokesman Don Ruths.

Authorities called for a voluntary evacuation of houses along the western edge of the subdivision and asked residents to turn on their irrigation sprinklers. Firefighters had the blaze under control by about 6 p.m., but were expected to remain on scene through the weekend to keep an eye on hot spots and douse flareups, Ruths said.

Originally planned for 200 acres, the fire by Friday evening had scorched more than 500 acres. Smoke enveloped the county, and the smoke plume was so large that it registered on Bay News 9's weather radar.

Bordered on the west by the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, the roughly 34,000-acre management area is part of a nearly unbroken crescent of protected public land stretching 200 miles from Pasco County to the Apalachicola River.

Prescribed burns are meant to keep wildlife habitat healthy — and neighboring humans safe — by ridding the landscape of thick brush that acts as a fuel for wildfires. But sometimes the burns get out of control and turn into wildfires. Some residents in Glen Lakes questioned why the wildlife commission conducted the burn on such a dry, windy day.

The commission obtained a permit for the burn based on the weather forecast, which includes predictions for humidity and wind direction and speed, said spokesman Gary Morse.

"You start out with the assumption that the forecast is going to be right, but as we know, that's not necessarily the case," Morse said. "It's a matter of using good judgment and assessing the risks, and sometimes Mother Nature throws us a curveball. We're ready when that happens."

The commission regularly burns in the wildlife area, which likely helped Friday, Morse said.

"If we had not, a wildfire would be much harder to control, if we could control it at all."

Times photojournalist Octavio Jones contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow him @hernandotimes on Twitter.

Firefighters bring raging prescribed burn in western Hernando under control 03/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 10:32pm]
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