NEW PORT RICHEY (FOX 13) - While accepting criticism for the last-second decision to close three schools this morning, Pasco County’s superintendent of schools warned that smoke from a smoldering brush fire could continue to interfere with some schedules for the rest of the week.
It was around 7:30 a.m. Monday when Pasco officials announced that River Ridge Middle School and River Ridge High School would be closed for the day due to smoky conditions. School buses had already delivered bus riders to school by that time, forcing the district – and parents – to scramble.
Close to an hour later, the district decided to close another school, Cypress Park Elementary.
With a 2,275-acre brush fire burning in the Starkey Wilderness Preserve, Superintendent Kurt Browning explained that school principals and maintenance staff had monitored the smoke over the weekend and conditions at the schools were OK. But on Monday morning, the wind shifted and blew smoke toward the schools.
"The smoke was never like it was this morning," Browning said, later adding, "When administrators arrived and couldn't see the school, we knew we were going to have some issues."
As kids arrived Monday, visibility was near zero in some places near the schools. Some parents picking up their kids told FOX 13 that they could barely see the roads in front of them.
Monday afternoon, Browning said the schools were running their air conditioning and working to filter the air in hopes that they can reopen Tuesday, though later than normal. The district’s current plan is for River Ridge high and middle to start at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, and dismiss at 5:10 p.m. for the rest of the week.
Cypress Park Elementary will be on its normal schedule.
If anything changes, Browning pledged to notify parents by 6 a.m. Tuesday -- and he warned things were still very fluid.
“Be patient with us,” he added. “This is not like a tropical storm or a hurricane where we had days to prepare. This could literally be an hour that we find out we have smoke moving in on a campus.”
At last check, the Anclote Branch Fire burning inside Starkey Park was 75% contained. How this fire started remains under investigation. But, this isn't the only one tying up resources already stretched thin.
"Unfortunately, people are not making our jobs a lot easier," Pasco County Fire Rescue Staff Chief Shawn Whited.
A county-wide burn ban has been in effect since April 12th. That means no yard burning, no campfires or fireworks. If you're in any county parks, the ban also means no grilling or barbeques.
Still, in the last month, crews have been called out to 561 illegal burns
"People burning yard trash, people burning household trash, yard debris," Whited said. "The common answer is, I didn't know there was a burn ban."
If prevention isn't enough incentive, perhaps the fines are. The base fine for illegal burns is $500 plus $18 for court costs, and $600 for each truck that responds. For calls that bring 6, or even 9 trucks, that can add up fast. The highest fine so far was over $14,000.
"We are not in the business of trying to fine people, we are in the business of trying to educate people on the burn ban," Whited said. "We're pretty lenient. The only time you're going to get a citation from us is if we have been out there multiple times or if you've been warned in the past."
"If it continues to stay as dry as it is and people continue to burn, there's a good possibility that we could lose people's property, homes, and hopefully not, but some lives," Whited added.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is traveling to Pasco County Tuesday morning.
He'll be meeting with fire crews to thank them for all of their hard work protecting peoples' lives and property.