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Fierce brush fire in Polk scorches acres and delivers warning: Dry season has arrived

RIVER RANCH — Jim Wilkins was in his yard working on his boat and didn't notice the flames nearing his southeast Polk County house on Wednesday, not until a neighbor called and told him to get out.

He grabbed his wife, and she grabbed her wallet and laptop. They didn't bother to lock up as they leaped in the car and, like so many others, fled a Florida wildfire. They could feel the heat breathing down their necks as they drove.

"All you could see on either side of the road were walls of flames," he said Friday.

Days of fires scorched the rural Central Florida landscape this week, blanketing roads in smoke, consuming camp facilities, destroying about a dozen homes and, according to authorities, stealing the last breath from someone's pet dog.

South of State Road 60, strong winds spit flames thousands of feet forward, as forestry crews waged war against an inferno that would blacken 5,000 acres.

Wilkins, a man who likes to be prepared, lost $5,000 worth of nonperishable foods he kept in metal drums in the woods, he said. Fire singed his grapefruit and avocado trees.

He lives in a region some might consider the middle of nowhere, vast tracts of scrub brush and pine-treed land that motorists see on their way to Yeehaw Junction and the east coast.

Among the hardest hit areas there was River Ranch Acres, a private recreational haven for hunting and mud bogging off County Road 630.

"The fire started about two days ago, and it's been jumping around ever since," Josh Hutcheson, director of the River Ranch Property Owners Association, said Friday. "Yesterday, around 3 p.m., there was a mandatory evacuation, and no one was let in to get any of their belongings from their camp.

"We finally got a handle on it today, but there are still hot spots all over the place, still fires popping up everywhere. We're beating them down hard as we can."

At week's end, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam declared a partial victory, thanking emergency workers for their efforts and thanking God for a half-inch of rain.

But he also offered a sobering warning: Dry season, which runs through April, has just begun.

"The entire peninsula with the exception of the Panhandle is in dry conditions, and we encourage everyone to be very vigilant about burning outdoors, burning trash, fireworks, anything where a fire can get away from you," Putnam said after touring the region in a helicopter.

"The similarities between this year and the 1998 fire season are pretty hard to ignore."

Florida's 1998 wildfires, historic for their appetite, burned about 500,000 acres and, by official accounts, cost the state at least $640 million.

And that fire season, like this one, came on the heels of an El Niño year, Putnam noted, in which record rainfall produced vegetation that suddenly dried up and created ideal fuel.

The brush fire forced the evacuation of at least 800 residences on Wednesday, according to Polk County Fire Rescue.

"Our hearts break for those who lost their homes," Putnam said. "But it could have been a whole lot worse than it was. This was an all-hands-on-deck moment and, as a result, a lot of homes were saved."

At times the smoke plummeted visibility to zero, forcing the Florida Highway Patrol to close County Road 630 and State Road 60. Both roads were reopened later Friday morning.

Putnam said there was still an active fire response Friday as more than 40 personnel from state and local agencies continue to put out hot spots. The majority of the fire, though, was contained, he said.

There were no reported human deaths or injuries.

The damage at times seemed capricious and random, as fires flared up and died down, reducing some trees to stumps while barely touching others.

Nick Lytle, 53, was out running errands when fire neared the camper trailer where he has been living on County Road 630.

Newly released from prison for a sexual battery conviction, he had few possessions. The only one that was irreplaceable, he said, was the brown leather Bible that had helped him rediscover his faith while incarcerated.

It was around 11 a.m. Wednesday when he went to Walmart to buy groceries and the post office to send letters. When he tried to go back home, the fire had spread and emergency workers turned him away. He heard from a friend that his trailer burned, but he returned the next day to good news. Charred ground surrounded it, but the trailer itself, and his Bible, were untouched.

Even his three outdoor propane tanks were okay.

"I'm in a state of shock, still," he said. "I felt joy, excitement and an overwhelming gratitude that He was still looking out for me despite everything I done."

Times staff writer Samantha Putterman and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @ADawsonwrites

Fierce brush fire in Polk scorches acres and delivers warning: Dry season has arrived 02/17/17 [Last modified: Friday, February 17, 2017 10:43pm]
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