Estates man faces $9,000 fine for starting 50-acre brush fire

— A 65-year-old Golden Gate Estates man is facing a nearly $9,000 fine and possible jail time for his role in starting a 50-acre brush fire in March that ended up threatening 60 homes.

Fire officials say hefty fines like the one Clifford Cummins is facing are infrequent, but they’re necessary to recover costs incurred while fighting the fires.

On March 18, Cummins, 4220 12th Ave. S.E., buried coals from an earlier cook out in the sand, thinking that they were no longer hot. Later that afternoon, Cummins was on the phone in his house when he said he noticed the blaze.

“Oh God. I immediately thought about those coals,” he said.

The fire erupted into a 50-acre blaze, threatening 60 homes. It took the Florida Forest Service three days to completely control it.

The Florida Forest Service, the state branch of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, issued Cummins a suppression fee fine for $8,961 to pay for the helicopters, bulldozers, operators, pilots and firefighters who fought the fire.

The state also charged Cummins with reckless land burning, a second degree misdemeanor punishable up to 60 days in jail. Cummins’ hearing is set for July 25 in Collier County court.

Every year, two or three individuals in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties are fined thousands of dollars in suppression fees for intentionally or recklessly burning land, Florida Forest Service spokesman Victor Hill said. In addition, many like Cummins are charged in state court for intentional or reckless land burning.

“For the most part, the residents in the three counties we serve do a good job of understanding the risks,” Hill said. “But if we believe negligence is involved, then we issue the notice.”

The hefty fines can be extremely burdensome for those responsible. They can also face federal fines, state charges and often lawsuits from neighbors claiming property damage, even if the fire was just a mistake.

In Cummins’ case, the damage amounts to about $100,000, including his neighbors’ claims for more than $37,000 in property damages. State Attorney spokeswoman Samantha Syoen said the state can also seek restitution.

“I love Florida, I would do nothing to hurt it,” Cummins said.

The court affidavit said “Cummins stated that he was sorry for the fire and was happy that no person had been injured.” Cummins does not have an attorney and will be representing himself in the July 25 hearing, Syoen said.

Now Cummins said he wishes he had never admitted to burying the coals and thinks he didn’t start the fire.

“For all I know, it could have been from a lightning strike,” he said.

According to Hill, Cummins has worked out a payment plan with the Florida Forest Service to pay the almost $9,000 fine. Cummins said he was “afraid they would place a lien against his house” if he didn’t pay the fine.

“If someone can’t afford the fine or won’t pay it, we take them to court,” Hill said.

Hill said the Florida Forest Service rarely gets involved with litigation like this. The state charge is completely separate from the federal fine, he said.

Syoen said that the State Attorney’s office worked with the Department of Agriculture and Florida Forest Service to file the arrest warrant. Another charge could possibly be followed as the case continues, Syoen said, but said no other details about that charge could be revealed Tuesday.

“I’m 66 years old, retired and diabetic,” Cummins said. “I saved up enough money to buy this house because it’s quiet and safe here and I’m fixing it up.

“Now, after all of this, I’m just in absolute shock.”

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