Rain gives reprieve as firefighters across state help Collier battle fire in Golden Gate Estates
At least seven homes have been destroyed by an 8,663-acre wildfire that continues burning in Golden Gate Estates near Alligator Alley, fire leaders said Friday.
The light but constant rain that fell across much of Southwest Florida on Friday slowed the fire’s spread and gave firefighters on the front lines a much-needed reprieve after two days of intense fire activity.
The fire grew less than 200 acres between Thursday and Friday, and the lull in fire activity allowed wildland firefighters to up containment of the blaze from 10% to about 40%, said John Kern, a Florida Forest Service incident commander.
“It allowed the firefighters to move in closer to the fire, put some good bulldozer lines right against the fire and keep it contained,” he said.
But fire officials warned that the rain that fell Friday, less than half an inch, likely wouldn’t be near enough to really knock the fire down.
The region is in a drought, and while the rain will add moisture to the grass and leaves, it won’t be enough to affect the deep, dry soil. Firefighters really need a significant rain to do that, Kern said.
“We’re not out the woods just yet, so to speak,” Kern said. “We’ve got dryer weather coming for the next two days.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, and there’s no obvious cause at the moment, Kern said, ruling out the possibility of a lightning strike. “So probably human-caused,” he said.
He urged anyone with information about possible arson is asked to call the state’s arson alert hotline at (800) 342-5869 for reward of up to $5,000.
The rain was expected to taper off Friday into Saturday, Kern said. The winds also are expected to shift, and will start blowing out of the west, away from Naples, which is good news for the area, Kern said.
Firefighters from across the state – as far away as Tampa, Miami and Orlando – have descended on Collier County to battle the blaze, known as the 36th Avenue Fire. There are upwards of 250 firefighters working the fire, Greater Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said.
The fire is burning in neighborhoods off Everglades Boulevard just north of Alligator Alley and in neighborhoods just south of the Alley and east of Collier Boulevard. The heaviest fire activity has been around 36th Avenue Southeast and 22nd Avenue Southeast.
The fire, which has displaced several residents, is burning in some of the same neighborhoods scorched by large fires in 2017.
“There are people that lost their homes three years ago that have rebuilt, that have moved back in and they are under the mandatory evacuation,” Schuldt said.
Fire investigators with the district are beginning the process of identifying homes and structures that have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze. A team of about 15 fire district employees is mapping every street and counting homes near where the fire is burning.
At a press conference Friday evening, Schuldt confirmed that seven residences have been lost in the fire, along with 23 outparcel buildings – stables, barns and sheds. Schuldt said he didn’t know the locations of the homes that burned.
“Our teams are actively in the field,” he said.
Officials provide information on 36th Avenue South Fire Naples Daily News
Guillermo Meza Beristain, 47, who lives with his wife and three kids in a home off 22nd Avenue Southeast in Golden Gate Estates, was home Wednesday when he heard a neighbor screaming that there was a fire. Meza Beristain, who had just finished mowing his lawn, came out to see the trees behind his neighbor’s home engulfed in flames.
“It was big,” he said of the fire. “It was cracking, making noises. It was scary.”
Meza Beristain loaded his family and their dogs in their truck and fled. He tried to come back to rescue the family’s chickens and lambs, but he said Collier County sheriff’s deputies wouldn’t let him back.
“I tried coming twice, but they said it was too dangerous,” he said.
Firefighter’s saved the family’s homes, and the chickens and lambs survived.
“Those guys do a very good job, an amazing job,” Meza Beristain said of the firefighters.
Bob Mariana also was home Wednesday watching TV at his home on 36th Avenue Southeast. He too was alerted by a neighbor of the fire just down the road. He stepped out to take a look.
“I saw a great plume of smoke right where he said,” Mariana said, adding that sheriff’s deputies were in the area. “They said ‘You’d better start making plans to evacuate.”
Mariana called his wife, Flora Acosta, who was at work in LaBelle. She tried to drive home, but was stopped by deputies at Golden Gate and Everglades boulevards.
The couple moved to Golden Gate Estates from New Jersey just a few years ago because they like the trees and the privacy the area offers. But Acosta said she wasn’t aware of how intense Florida’s fire season can be. She said she wasn’t really even aware Florida had a fire season.
“I come from New Jersey. I’ve never experienced fire like this. It was very quick,” Acosta said, calling the fire “petrifying.”
South of Alligator Alley and east of Collier Boulevard, the fire burned across the road from the home Todd Waldeck is rebuilding after his previous home on Benfield Road was destroyed by the Lee Williams fire in 2017. The fire, he said, got “super close” to his property again this week, and caused “a little bit of panic for sure.”
His biggest worry, he said, is that he can’t get insurance yet on the home he is rebuilding himself. If it were to burn, he would lose everything he’s put into it the last few years and wouldn’t have the money to rebuild again.
But Waldeck said he felt better prepared this time. He used a large piece of hose, a pump and some PVC pipe to convert a backhoe on his property into a makeshift fire truck. He can pump water from a pond on his property.
“We could fight a fire now if we had to,” he said.
One road over, Laurence LeBuff stopped by Friday morning to check up on his newly rebuilt home. His family also lost their home in the Lee Williams fire.
Fire hadn’t come as close to his home this week as it had to Waldeck’s. LeBuff said he thinks he’ll be fine.
“We just figure it’s all in God’s hands,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about any of it.”
Fire crews from multiple agencies are battling spot fires Thursday, May 14, 2020, from the 36th Ave brush fire Golden Gate Estates. Naples Daily News