GOLDEN GATE ESTATES — The first thing Phil and Becky Mudrak said they felt on Thursday morning was a sense of relief.
Seems strange considering the Golden Gate Estates residents woke up to a home surrounded by charred, smoking brush and damaged landscaping equipment from Phil’s business.
A brush fire that continued to sweep through the Estates on Thursday and still is smoldering has burnt more than 2,300 acres.
The $20,000 tractor Phil just paid off was completely destroyed, and it’s unclear if his insurance is going to cover it.
But Phil, Becky and their son Jordan are alive, as are the three dogs Phil stayed behind to protect as the flames surrounded his house.
And their home on Ivy Way still stands.
That sense of relief was shared by the Mudrak’s neighbors, who took the time to check in on each other after surveying their own damage Thursday morning.
“We’re all pretty close-knit,” said Hollis Dukes, who lives down the road from the Mudraks.
Jack Flanders, another neighbor, drove from house to house in the neighborhood on an old John Deere ATV to see what his neighbors needed.
Though flames came within feet of many of these houses, no one was injured and no house was burned.
They had the efforts from state and local firefighters to thank for that.
“If it wasn’t for the fire department, all these homes would have been lost,” Flanders said.
However, Flanders said the rapid spread of the fire on Wednesday was jarring.
When he left town that morning, officials were still reporting that the fire was contained. But by the afternoon, heavy wind gusts pushed the fire in a northwestern direction.
Victor Hill, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry, said smoke was so thick that it was difficult for Division of Forestry’s firefighting aircraft to get in front of the fire to stop it.
On Tuesday, when the fire started, it consumed a trailer that Noriel Lopez, 65, called home. On Wednesday, the fire destroyed two vehicles.
Estates residents affected by the fire said Thursday it was scary how quickly the flames got to them.
“It was like if you poured gasoline in front of it,” said Dukes, who watch the flames approach her home until Collier Sheriff¹s deputies told her to leave.
Firefighters on the ground resorted to “direct structure protection,” Hill said, in which fire engines parked in the driveways of homes and protected them from flames while the surrounding vegetation burned.
That tactic was used to save about 100 homes, Hill said.
Dukes said she wasn’t sure what she was going to find after she was allowed back home. She lost a storage trailer near her home, the flames melting the fiberglass structure into the ground. Her lawn is a charred ruin.
But that didn’t matter on Thursday.
“We’ve got our homes and we’ve got our lives,” Dukes said. “That’s the important thing.”
SW FLORIDA BRUSH FIRE (APRIL - MAY 2011)
- Video: 2,304 Acre burn in Golden Gate
- Photos: Fires in Verona Walk
- Photos: Brush Fire in East Naples
- Photos: Gov. Scott visits Golden Gate Estates brush fire command center
- Photos: Estates residents survey aftermath of brush fire
- Photos: Aerial photos of Golden Gate Brush Fire
- Photos: Golden Gates Estates Brush Fire Photos: April 26-28, 2011
- Photos: Estates fire rages into the evening, mandatory evacuations in some parts
- Photos: Multiple fires in Collier, vehicles, structures lost
- Photos: Firefighters battle three fires in Golden Gate Estates
- Photos: Golden Gate Estates brush fire: April 26, 2011
- Severe Weather Guide: Read stories and find useful information on wildfires