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Not long after a wildfire started to gnaw its way through eastern Collier County’s brush Sunday afternoon, Florida Forest Service wildland firefighter Elmer Sauceda got the call that he was heading to Picayune Strand State Forest to start battling the greedy flames.

Since then, 20-hour shift after 20-hour shift has passed as dozens of firefighters like Sauceda worked around the clock to try to contain a brush fire that soon would cover 7,500 acres and threaten scores of homes south of Beck Boulevard and Alligator Alley and east of Collier Boulevard.

But Thursday, shortly after noon, Sauceda, clad in his heavy firefighter gear and standing not far from where the fire started Sunday, showed no signs of slowing down as he prepared to scour the charred brush for hot spots and patrol the containment lines in a hulking bulldozer.

“From Sunday through Wednesday we were working 19, 20 hours just because the fire was burning so intense,” Sauceda, 31, said. “We have 200 personnel on the fire, and everybody has been eager to do as much work as possible, compromising our sleep, but this is what we do. And we do it gladly.”

He saved being tired for later.

“We enjoyed doing this, not only for ourselves, but also for the community, so it really doesn’t take a toll,” Sauceda said. “Later on, in the next two, three days, I’m pretty sure I’m going to start feeling it. But in the meantime, as long as we’re working and we’re making good progress, that’s all that matters.”

And they did.

By Thursday the fire had been 50 percent contained, and residents of communities along Beck Boulevard who had to evacuate Tuesday had already spent a day back in their homes. Four rural homes were lost to the flames, but hundreds more were saved.

The fire, which officials said was human-caused but not necessarily arson, was especially hard to contain earlier in the week because strong wind gusts kept fanning the flames westward toward Collier Boulevard, Sauceda said.

“It was a little bit harder, and the reason why it was a little bit harder is because it was wind-driven, so the head of the fire was moving pretty quick, and that’s always a danger to other firefighters on the ground,” he said.

“We had 16 to 20 mph wind the days the fire was making a good run. So that’s probably the toughest thing that I’ve seen so far.”

The insatiable blaze fed fiercely on the bone-dry brush.

“It’s been burning pretty intense,” Sauceda said. “It can get (to) 2,000, 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Crews used their bulldozers, which have heavy plows trailing them, along the fire’s flanks to cut it off from gorging on new brush and worked to try to pinch it off near the blaze’s head.

For the past four days, Sauceda drove the lead bulldozer on the left flank of the brush fire.

“You’re in front making sure you’re keeping all of the fire to the right side,” he said. “And then you are pulling a dirt line behind you so that the fire doesn’t cross over to the left side.”

Although Sauceda, a nine-year veteran, has seen his fair share of fires, driving his bulldozer into the burning brush still makes him nervous at times.

But that’s a good thing.

“If you lose that, then that’s when bad things happen,” he said. “This is a pretty dangerous job. So you can get killed. So your situational awareness has to be up at all times. And being afraid, a little bit scared, is part of it.”

The strong winds and arid conditions made the area ripe for a wildfire, said Melissa Yunas, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service.

“Typically, dry season starts in October,” she said. “It goes until about June, July. And we actually went into an extremely dry season this year. And what happens is it’s compounded. We’re talking a couple of months of dryness in addition to downed hurricane debris that has been — large logs, large sticks, large twigs — have been compounding on the forest floor after the hurricane.”

On top of that, Yunas said, the last two years have been extremely wet, which means vegetation has been growing rapidly during that time.

“And then once the dry spell kicks in, then a lot of that vegetation dies off,” she said. “You have then thick, dense forests that need a little cleaning. And Mother Nature or human cause will actually start those fires.”

Fortunately, Yunas said, no one has started any new fires, and none of the brush has been affected by lightning strikes.

“If we had more wildfires, it could stress our local resources even more,” she said. “So we’re asking everybody to remain vigilant and be careful with anything that could cause a spark.”

As of Thursday, more than 100 state and federal firefighters were working the fire along with more than 60 city and county firefighters. Crews used 17 engines, 21 bulldozers, three swamp buggies, two brush trucks, two helicopters, two water tenders and one plane to battle the blaze.

By 3 p.m. Thursday, officials shut down Beck Boulevard again because of a flare-up, according to Michelle Batten, Collier County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. Officials said a power line was brought down by a tree on fire, but crews were nearby to put the fire out. Beck Boulevard was reopened after crews fixed the power line.

They worked once again through the night to try to contain the fire lines and monitor any potential hot spots, said Samantha Quinn, a mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service.

The concern Thursday was, once roads reopened, to be able to reduce smoke to keep drivers and residents safe, she said.

"You're still going to have some gusts of wind, 5 mph, so it's just smoke (that) will pick up and drift," Quinn said.

But, as was the case Wednesday, favorable weather conditions Thursday were expected to help crews further contain the fire.

"We're seeing less wind, so it's not pushing along and raging like it was," Quinn said. "The winds are huge right now as far as us being able to get in there and fight this."

Many of the trees that were charred by the fire have a good chance of surviving if cooling rain showers can reach them in time, Yunas said.

“Trees are made with an insulated bark to protect the core of the trees,” she said. “The bark actually protects it, insulates it from the fire. But right now what we’re seeing is the duff layer, the pine needles, leaves, sticks and twigs, are now burning down below the surface layer. And they’re actually kind of cooking the roots.”

Yunas said more prescribed burns help prevent future fires.

“It’s amazing how important fire is for the ecosystem,” she said. “But we need to support prescribed fire and make sure that we can do this. That way we won’t have devastating wildfires.”

How to help

Friends and family members have established accounts to help the four families who lost their homes:

Todd and Monique Waldeck, 5180 Benfield Road

www.gofundme.com/waldeck-house-fire 

www.gofundme.com/monique-and-todd-waldecks-home

Laurence, Peggy and Virginia LeBuff, 5000 Le Buffs Road

https://napleschurch.ccbchurch.com/form_response.php?id=282

Jim Kurth, 4895 Le Buffs Road

www.gofundme.com/house-caught-fire-in-a-brush-fire

The Rev. Samuel “Drew” and Fawn Harrison, 4980 Le Buffs Road

https://www.gofundme.com/harrison-family-fire-recovery

To donate to the local chapter of the American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/local/florida/south-florida/donate

Related:Collier County brush fire grows to 7,500 acres, but residents allowed to return and I-75 reopens

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Related:Collier County residents offer to help those affected by brush fire

Related:How to help families who lost homes in Collier fire

Related:Collier brush fire means stay indoors to avoid smoke inhalation

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