Wildfires burning in Pasco County have produced heavy smoke — causing inconvenience for motorists, disrupting schools and posing potential health hazards.
Pasco County officials have responded to the wildfires by issuing warnings to motorists to use care when driving through areas surrounding Starkey Park.
Motorists should expect periods of heavy smoke on the road for 30 days to 45 days, according to county emergency staff.
Signs have been posted along State Road 52, State Road 54 and State Road 589 (Suncoast Parkway), to alert motorists of the latest conditions.
Motorists are advised to slow down when driving through smoke and to use their headlights, not their hazards.
Parents also are advised to check the Pasco County Schools website for the latest information on schools that may be affected by the smoky conditions.
Pasco County Schools and the Pasco County Emergency Management staff decided to continue the late start time for River Ridge Middle School and River Ridge High School on May 15, and planned to decide that day whether it would be safe to resume the schools’ regular schedule beginning May 16.
“We hope we will be able to resume the regular schedule beginning on Tuesday (May 16), but the weather forecast will dictate what we do moving forward,” Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning said, in a news release.
River Ridge Middle, River Ridge High and Cypress Elementary Schools were closed on May 8, because heavy smoke from the Starkey Park wildfire had permeated the schools’ classrooms.
Beginning May 9, River Ridge Middle and River Ridge High have operated on a 10:45 a.m. to 5:10 p.m. schedule.
The Starkey Park wildfire also posed an inconvenience for those planning to camp at the park during Mother’s Day weekend.
The county cancelled all camping in Starkey Park through May 14.
The county also banned campfires, barbecues or any other kind of open flames in county parks until further notice.
There is a burn ban in effect, until further notice, in Pasco County that prohibits burning of garbage, trash or yard debris.
Bike and hiking trails also are closed in Starkey Park until further notice because of safety concerns, and to provide access for firefighters.
On May 9, the Florida Forest Service reported that the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness fire was 70 percent contained, at 2,275 acres.
During a recent update for the Pasco County Commission, county emergency staff reported that 15 miles of bike trail have been damaged in Starkey Park. Of that, about 2 miles of trail were damaged by bulldozers that had to create breaks to keep the fire from spreading.
Staff also reported that all of the signs in Starkey Park will need to be replaced.
The county estimates that between 600 and 700 people visit Starkey Park daily during the week, and about 1,000 visit daily on weekends.
The Florida Department of Health in Pasco County has issued an alert to remind citizens that wildfire smoke is a respiratory irritant that causes a scratchy throat or irritated eyes and nose. It also can worse conditions such as asthma and other chronic respiratory or lung conditions.
Dust generated from increased wildfire response activity on dirt roads also may worsen these conditions.
And, while it may seem like an obvious piece of advice, Pasco County Commission Mike Moore warned people that they need to stay away from the wildfires.
“Let’s not do sightseeing in the area,” Moore said. “Boots were melting when you walked in some of those areas. It’s important that the public stay out of there. It’s not time for sightseeing.”
The Florida Department of Health in Pasco County has issued these tips to help protect you and your family from the ill effects of smoke:
- Pay attention to local air quality reports, local news and health warnings related to smoke.
- Use common sense when you are outside and the conditions are smoky.
- Avoid prolonged outdoor activities.
- Those with existing medical conditions should avoid going into smoky areas.
- If smoke persists, stay indoors and run your air conditioner, if you have one. Also, keep the fresh air intake closed and be sure the filter is clean. For best results, run the air conditioner with recirculated air.
- If you have asthma or another lung disease, be sure to follow your doctor’s advice about taking your medications, and call your doctor if conditions worsen.
Published May 17, 2017