Returning to rubble: Golden Gate Estates fire victims lose their homes to the blaze
36th Avenue Southeast fire victim Pranee Nakarintra shifts through debris in search for her belongings May 16, 2020. Naples Daily News
Many victims of the 36th Avenue Southeast brush fire escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs as their homes were destroyed by the flames that spread through eastern Collier County this week.
The 8,663-acre wildfire fire continued to burn and was 40 percent contained Saturday, according to the Florida Forest Service.
At a press conference Friday evening, Greater Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt confirmed that seven residences have been lost in the fire.
The Naples Daily News spent time with residents Saturday and found several displaced community members, suggesting the official number of homes lost will rise.
An outpouring of support and a vow to help neighbors
With smoke in the air, charred and blackened palm trees around her and black ashes on the ground, Lisa Cook returned to her Golden Gate Estates property Saturday for the first time since her house was destroyed in the fire.
The ground was still hot underneath her feet as she approached the smoking, gray pile of rubble that was once the home she shared with her boyfriend of 11 years, Carl Radzik.
“I've seen enough pictures that I knew what it looked like now, but it's still crazy,” Lisa said as she looked on.
Before the fire, her two daughters Emma Cook, 14, and Quinn Radzik, 2, lived in the home with her, and Lisa’s parents lived in a camper on her property.
Fire officials and a representative of the American Red Cross came and went as Lisa wandered around her property with two of her dogs following close behind.
Remains of a trampoline, a pig pen and patio furniture near her former home could be seen as Lisa talked about what was gone.
“We just planted Quinn some flowers,” she said looking down at a burnt clump of soil. “That is so sad because she was so excited about it, and they were just starting to come up.”
The play set the family recently built was gone. So was the rose bush Lisa’s boyfriend gave her for Mother's Day.
The pallet he painted for gardening tools and hung on the front of the deck was also rubble.
“My lights I just bought for the outside of the house, I can see them,” Lisa said. “Our copper sink we were about to put in — it's right there. We had so much stuff, that's the thing. Carl had so many tools."
The family first moved into the house in February 2018, a month before Lisa’s second daughter was born.
"The funny thing is I kind of hated this house, I used to joke about it when we first moved here,” Lisa said. “It was in bad shape and kind of a fixer-upper when we bought it.”
Firefighters couldn’t get close to the house to protect it from the flame because of the narrow, bumpy dirt roads it sits on.
“We've been talking with the neighbors for a while about what we need to do to get it fixed and widened,” Lisa said. “Now, that's my next project after I make sure everyone is good. I need to get this road widened so this (expletive) never happens to us again.”
On Wednesday as the fire got closer and closer to her home, Lisa’s nephew Derrek Wallace did everything he could to save it.
The 36th Avenue SE brush fire burned near a home before destroying it on May 13, 2020. (Video courtesy of Derrek Wallace) Naples Daily News
He ran between the nearby canal filling up a 5-gallon bucket with water and dumping it on the flames to defend the house.
“The palm trees, when those things went up and the wind was whipping so fast the fire was just screaming,” Wallace said. “It was so loud coming through those trees.”
Wallace thought he had everything under control until a part of the deck attached to the house caught fire.
"Next thing I know, I jumped off the deck and I was out of breath from the smoke,” Wallace said. “I started to drive away and started dry heaving. It was scary."
Since their home was destroyed, Lisa and her family have been staying with Lisa’s sister, who also lives in Golden Gate Estates. Lisa said she is working on finding a more permanent place for her family to stay.
“We'll find a place,” Lisa said. “I do have people out there looking for us.”
On Thursday, Lisa spent most of the day inside her sister’s garage sorting through donated clothes and toiletries. The items were sent to her from community members and a local off-road vehicle group called Prodigy Automotive & Offroad.
“All of my tears yesterday were happy tears,” Lisa said. “I was just thankful for everyone coming together to help us.”
Even as her family struggles with the loss of their home, Lisa knows many of neighbors are in the same situation and she is focused on helping them.
She has plans to allow one of her neighbors, who lost his home and has no insurance, to stay in her guest house that was not damaged in the fire.
“I just want to help my neighbors,” Lisa said. “I need help but I will get it eventually.”
The roof of the guest house was destroyed in 2017 during Hurricane Irma, and Lisa and Carl had been fixing it up before the fire.
Now Lisa and Carl plan to put in countertops and a sink and could end up moving in after their neighbor finds a place to stay.
"I don't even have tears left to cry,” Lisa said. “I'm not that sad anymore. When I think about certain things, like the kids' baby stuff, it's sad those are gone."
Lisa is thankful her boyfriend rescued her three cats, a pig and two dogs, and the baby blankets for her daughter from their home before it was destroyed.
“The relief was unreal when I finally saw Carl coming and he had two of the bunny blankets for Quinn in his hand,” Lisa said. “I couldn't see my animals at first then he told me he got them all.”
Lisa, who has lived in the Naples-area since 2003, plans to return to her job at a veterinarian office Monday and said she is going to rebuild her family's house.
“It will be my own version of the house,” Lisa said. “We'll find a way eventually. We will probably do a lot of it ourselves. We'll build our dream home this time instead of trying to turn someone else's into our dream home.”
Looking at the burnt landscape surrounding her property, Lisa reflected on what she loves about the place.
"It's beautiful here, it really is,” Lisa said. “It's hard to picture it now but it will be beautiful again.”
Son thought he lost his father to the fire
Michael Christensen drove through the fire Wednesday only to find his dad’s trailer engulfed in flames.
Neighbors told Christensen that his dad, also Mike Christensen, was refusing to leave his property off Woodland Estates Road and his home for more than 40 years.
When he saw his dad’s mobile home on fire, Michael Christensen, 46, assumed the worst.
“I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “All I could see was flames. Like dad, dad, where are you dad?”
What Christensen didn’t know at the time was that another neighbor had already grabbed his dad and hauled him to safety, “kicking and screaming,” Michael Christensen’s wife, Patty, said.
Mike Christensen, a heart transplant recipient about 10 years back, recently suffered a stroke. He still struggles to speak, but remains committed to staying on the land.
“I lost everything,” he said, but added, “I ain’t leaving.”
Michael Christensen said his dad has seen a lot of fires burn through Golden Gate Estates in his four decades living there, but nothing like the fire that tore through Wednesday.
His dad’s trailer is now just a mangled mess of burned metal. The fire also destroyed Mike Christensen’s truck and his tool shop, a regular family hangout.
“The only thing he had was his wallet and his clothes on,” Michael Christensen said of his dad. “That’s all he had with him.”
There were at least three other families with mobile homes behind Christensen’s whose homes also burned, family and neighbors said.
Patty Christensen said they’ve been amazed at the outpouring of support from friends and neighbors.
“Our phone has been blowing up. What do you need? I’ll be there. What do you need? What do you need?” she said.
Friends have established a GoFundMe account for Mike Christensen at: www.gofundme.com/f/support-michael-christensen-house-fire-relief
'I have nowhere to go'
For the last three nights Pranee Nakarintra has parked at rest stops and slept in the back of her van.
She's surviving on mangos she has in a plastic bag. After her mobile home was destroyed in the fire on Wednesday, she has few options and doesn't know what to do.
"I have nowhere to go," she said, crying. "No place."
Nakrintra's home was one of at least four homes on Lamb Lane, deep in the woods in Golden Gate Estates, that burned in the fire. Nakarintra, 65, said she's lived on the property for 16 years. She was living with a friend who had recently moved in.
Nakarintra tried to get back to her home Wednesday night while the fire was burning. But she said she was stopped twice by Collier County sheriff's deputies who told her it was too dangerous.
She drove in Saturday morning with a wheelbarrow to start hauling debris to the road.
Nakarintra, who is originally from Thailand, made a living selling fruit and vegetables, she said. But all of the fruit and vegetables she was growing behind her home were destroyed by the fire, too.
Staying positive after losing everything
Surrounded by fire, Dan McMahon threw his dogs in his truck and gunned it through a wall of flames.
He couldn’t see much, but he could see the scraggly dirt road — more like an ATV trail — that runs north along the canal beside his home, so he followed that.
Along the way he encountered other neighbors escaping the inferno. When they got a safe distance away, he said, they stopped in another neighbor’s yard and just watched the fire burn.
“At that point we already knew that we had lost everything,” said McMahon, 58, a former paramedic. “The fire was going so fast I just knew there was no chance.”
When the fire passed and McMahon returned to the property, only a gutted shell of his home remained.
For about 20 years, McMahon and his wife, Carolyn Stepp, 56, have lived on this remote piece of land off Woodland Estates Road, surrounded by trees deep in the Golden Gate Estates.
It’s a special place, he said, the kind of place where all the neighbors know one another even though they live a half-mile apart from one another.
McMahon escaped Wednesday with only his three dogs and the shorts he was wearing — he wasn’t wearing a shirt or shoes. He didn’t even have time to grab his wallet or any other possessions.
“The fire at that point in time, it was roaring and it was like rolling on the ground,” he said.
There hasn’t been much to salvage, but McMahon did find a small cement squirrel ornament that used to belong to his mom, who died after Hurricane Irma. It was still sitting in front of the house.
“Instead of thinking of all the bad things, it was just a bit of joy,” he said of the squirrel ornament.
McMahon and his wife stayed in a hotel with their dogs the night of the fire. They’ve since returned and are living in a rented recreational vehicle. They lived in a trailer on the property 20 years ago when they built their home, so McMahon said they intend to do that again.
McMahon said a man was living on his property in that original trailer, which also was destroyed by the fire.
Unlike many of his neighbors, McMahon and Stepp had insurance on their home, which should help them rebuild. It’s a stressful time, but McMahon said he and his wife are trying to keep their spirits up.
“We try and stay positive and lighthearted and make jokes,” he said, “but obviously there are still points when you’re crying.”
Friends have established a GoFundMe account for McMahon and Stepp at: www.gofundme.com/f/carolyn-stepp-house-fire.
Out with the old
In the middle of Shirley Speight’s yard sits a new Maytag washing machine, just delivered Tuesday.
The workers were supposed to come out Friday to install it in her mobile home, she said. But her mobile home was burned to the ground by the inferno that tore through Golden Gate Estates on Wednesday.
Somehow the washing machine survived unscathed.
“As far as I’m concerned the universe just purified the land. Take the old out and bring in the new,” said Speight, 73, who lost just about everything she owned in the fire but has remained calm and collected.
Speight has been living deep in the woods off Lamb Lane since 2004, she said. She and her daughter, Nanette, lived in separate mobile homes on the land. Both /homes burned in the fire.
Speight said she and her daughter were shopping at Walmart on Wednesday when the fire ignited. The saw the fire when they were driving home and rushed back to rescue their Italian Greyhound, Serenity.
She ran out the door with only her purse, cellphone, keys and a pair of pajamas.
“We saw the fire and it was so close. And then, we just basically ran in and got the dog,” she said. “It is what it is.”
The brown shirt and green shorts she’s wearing are the only clothes she has left other than the socks she bought at Dollar Tree.
Speight said she and her daughter have been staying at a hotel in town since the fire. She was working Saturday to get aid from the Red Cross.
She said her ex-husband told her daughter that he would buy them a new home.
“He said, ‘I may be divorced from your mom, but I still love here.’ He said ‘I’m going to buy her a trailer.’“
‘I’m going to stay here as long as I can’
Khamdy Kiewsida has no intention of leaving Golden Gate Estates after his motorhome was destroyed by this week’s fire. He didn’t even want to leave when the fire was approaching.
Kiewsida, 57, said he saw the fire from his window Wednesday. It was red hot and high in the trees.
“And I said, 'Oh, what am I going to do now?'” he recalled Saturday.
He said a firefighter or a sheriff’s deputy — he’s not sure — came by his motor home at the end of Lamb Lane and told him he should leave.
But he didn’t leave. He said he told them he wanted to wait to see what would happen.
Ten minutes later they were back. There was no time to wait.
“They said I’ve got to get out now. Go, go, go, go. So I jumped in my car,” Kiewsida said. “After that I forgot my bottle of water. I said, 'Sir, can I go get my water?' And they said, ‘No, no no, no. Go, go, go.’”
Kiewsida said he fled in a truck his sister gave him. It’s all he has now. It’s where he sleeps these days.
The fire destroyed his water pump and his generator. Unlike most of his neighbors, he’s never had electricity.
Kiewsida, who is originally from Laos, said he’s been living in Golden Gate Estates for 30 years and living deep in the woods on Lamb Lane for 17 years. He doesn’t have a job, he said, but he survives.
“I’m going to stay here as long as I can,” he said. “I don’t know where to go.”