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More Than 7000 Acres Burn, Homes Destroyed in Wildfires

Quincy J. Walters
Samantha Quinn with the Florida Forestry Service surveys Golden Gate Estates

Evacuations due to wildfires have been lifted in Lee and Collier Counties.  7000 acres burned in Collier at 30th Avenue in Golden Gate Estates that was 50% contained as of Sunday afternoon. Three homes were destroyed.  The cause of that fire is still under investigation.  The News-press reports an arson investigator says a fire in Lehigh Acres, which destroyed 4 homes may have been caused by a cigarette. WGCU’s Quincy Walters spent the weekend keeping up with the changing conditions in Collier.

The air is grey with smoke Saturday morning as Governor Rick Scott gives an update on the fire.

“Unfortunately this morning, some people are waking up to find their homes destroyed, which is really tragic,” said Scott. “For those of you who have lost or damaged homes, we will be with you every step of the way.”

Fire officials like Kingman Schuldt, the fire Chief of Greater Naples Fire urge people within the then mandatory evacuation area to get out, because it hampers fire fighting operations.  

“That 38th street corridor and that Golden Gates Boulevard area those are our areas of concern,” said Schuldt. “We’ve asked people to leave and there’s a reason for that. You’re going to see a lot of heavy apparatus up and down your streets. Please be very cautious with that. Please continue to work in cooperation with our firefighters. If they ask you to relocate, please do that. That is for your safety.”

The evacuation area is a ghost town. In the area I’m in now, it’s mostly populated by houses on big plots of land with gates in front of the driveways. All of the gates are closed and all of the driveways are empty.

Except for one.

The Mendez family is packing up their minivan and heading to the Everglades to stay with friends.

Yadira Mendez just celebrated her quinceanera and popped balloons are still in the driveway.

“I’m a bit anxious and scared about the whole situation, but, like, I’m just trying to keep my cool and get everything collected that we need,” said Mendez.

Her mom, Luz Mendez, packing up pictures and clothes, expressed her concerns in Spanish.  

“She says she’s sad about the situation and kinda scared of losing everything that we have so far,” said Yadira Mendez. “And if God may wish upon us that it doesn’t go any further.”

At this time, Collier County, had one shelter open.

That’s where Kathy Webber is.

Friday night, she was in a hotel.  Saturday night, she stayed here.

“My friend is here,” said Webber. “So I thought I’ll come and stay here and pray God let’s us back home.”

Saturday night, it rains.

On Sunday, the sky is grey with rain clouds.

Samantha Quinn, with the Florida Forest Service, gets in her Jeep to survey areas that have been contained. She said rain was in the forecast for a few days and it never dropped.

“We were kind of not anticipating as much rain that fell,” said Quinn.”But grateful that it did fall.”

We’re on a bumpy dirt road, both sides bordered with charred trees…burns that indicate the flames here were at least 30 feet high.

“Do you see some of the black that’s here to your right?” asked Quinn. “This is where it burned up too. In a situation like this, what they’ll do is they’ll utilize this road as a fire break. So, instead of trying to go into the fire, they might let it burn up to the road, so they’re dousing it with water.”

She said the aftermath of the fire should not be measured by the amount of structures lost, but by the amount saved.

When we get back to Collier County’s Emergency Management Center, Quinn gets a notification saying the fire is fifty percent contained.

And the mandatory evacuation zones are lifted.

But Quinn said “we’re not out of the woods yet”

She said as soon as the moisture evaporates, the area will still be prone to wildfires. Then comes summer with potential for lightening fires.  

Quincy Walters is a reporter and backup host for WGCU.