NEW PORT RICHEY (FOX 13) - The smoke from a brush fire in Starkey Wilderness Preserve is expected to linger in the park and surrounding neighborhoods for up to a month and a half, firefighters said Monday.
The fire that started over the weekend burned nearly 2,300 acres and, as of Monday evening, was 75-percent contained.
"They had about five ‘dozers here trying to make a line, trying to cut off the head of the fire. It jumped the head and continued on," said Judy Tear, a spokesperson for the Florida Forest Service, explaining how the fire quickly spread.
Pasco firefighters said it could take up to between 30 and 45 days for the smoke to fully clear.
Thick smoke from the fire blew onto the campuses of River Ridge middle and high schools and Cypress Elementary School, forcing the district to send students home just as they arrived.
As a precaution, Superintendent Kurt Browning announced River Ridge Middle and High will delay their start and end times for the rest of the week; school will begin at 8:45 a.m. and let out at 5:10.
Meanwhile, firefighters continue to keep a close eye on hot spots in the preserve. A separate brush fire started near the park's edge, scaring neighbors along Tinley Road.
"Start getting prepared," said Linda Blank. "We have bags packed with emergency papers, clothes, food, what we're going to need, in case. Hopefully that doesn't come down to that."
"It makes me very concerned because if I lose my house then what do I do?" offered Cheri Kamm. "We woke up this morning and it did tell us it was blowing our way. They were going from door to door to let us know, so it's a little nerve-wracking."
Starkey Park's hiking and biking trails remain closed and camping there is canceled through at least Thursday. A burn ban remains in effect in Pasco County.
At 8 a.m. Tuesday, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam is planning to meet with firefighters at Starkey Wilderness Preserve to thank them for their hard work.