CLOSE
Skip in Skip
x

Embed

x

Four houses were burned last month in the 7,000-acre Lee Williams brush fire east of Collier Boulevard. Two residents who lost their homes talk about the rebuilding efforts. Ryan Mills/Naples Daily News

57 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Brush fires that raged through Southwest Florida late this week were another reminder of the perilous season in a state known for other natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Hundreds of firefighters continued to battle two brush fires burning nearly 3,000 acres Friday. Crews from Collier County and the Florida Forest Service planned air drops for the fires. One fire was at about 350 acre and 60 percent contained.

But the main concern Friday was a second, larger fire that nearly doubled overnight and now is at 2,500 acres and about 10 percent contained.

Authorities were concerned Friday morning that the day's low humidity and higher winds would run the fire north and to the west, toward residential and other urban developments.

"I expect it to run," said Jeff Pilotto from the Florida Forest Service. "Hopefully not that far. We're going to throw everything we have at it."

Pilotto said the weather is "at least as bad" and "maybe worse" than Thursday.

The area has more than 1,000 residential homes and also neighbors Big Cypress Elementary School, said Greater Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt.

The state was readying 22 bulldozers and one or two helicopters for the larger fire, Pilotto said. Helicopters were scheduled to begin their air drops of thousands of gallons of water around 9 a.m. Friday.

"We are the No. 1 priority in the state," Pilotto said. "They know how critically dry we are."

Florida's dry season has 91 brush fires burning statewide.

Earlier during brush fire season, in March, four residents lost their homes in Golden Gate Estates in rural Collier County, including Todd Waldeck. He drove down his S-shaped driveway on a recent day, through the scorched woods to a patch of dirt off Benfield Road where he readies the land to rebuild his custom stilt home.

He clears trees and debris, chops wood. By mid-April, Waldeck, 56, began building a pump house.

Some days, though, he just sits and looks out at the empty space.

“It’s my home,” he said. “It’s where I love to be.”

Waldeck’s family was one of four whose house last month burned in the 7,000-acre Lee Williams brush fire east of Collier Boulevard. The inferno, which started March 5 in the Picayune Strand State Forest, kicked off what has been an early and particularly busy brush fire season that has taxed fire departments — their staffs, equipment and budgets — in Southwest Florida and around the state.

More:Week after heart attack, Collier man and wife lose home he built to brush fire

Fires are burning across Florida on state and federal land, and Southwest Florida is experiencing the most activity. The state's two biggest fires are burning on federal land in Collier County in the Big Cypress National Preserve — the nearly 18,000-acre Cowbell Fire in eastern Collier north of Alligator Alley and the 26,000-acre Parliament Fire burning about 5 miles northeast of Ochopee.

Related stories: 

Wildland firefighters with the Florida Forest Service’s Caloosahatchee field unit by mid-April had battled more than 83 brush fires in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties, quickly closing in on the 126 they fought in the three counties through all of 2016. Those 83 fires have already burned more than 8,000 acres where state firefighters have jurisdiction, more than any year since 2011, when 14,998 acres burned, according to Florida Forest Service data.

A severe drought has left the region and much of the rest of the state a tinderbox.

There were 97 active wild fires burning throughout the state as of mid-April, 28 of which are 100 acres or more. Since January, more than 126,000 acres have burned on state and federal lands, according to the forest service. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency earlier this month.

“This past winter was the second warmest winter in Florida history,” said Samantha Quinn, a spokeswoman for the forest service’s Caloosahatchee unit. “When we have such dry conditions that we’re seeing in the drought, the vegetation ignites quicker and (fire) spreads at a higher rate.”

Rather than nearing an end, history shows Southwest Florida is likely still closer to the beginning of peak brush fire season. A Naples Daily News review of the region’s biggest and most destructive fires over the last decade shows that almost all ignited in late April or in May.

For instance:

CLOSE
Skip in Skip
x

Embed

x

Here are the largest wildfires Southwest Florida has seen in the last ten years. Video by Rebecca Reis Wochit

“Typically this is when we start getting active, and we’ve already been active,” Quinn said.

After record El Niño rains in late 2015 and early 2016, Southwest Florida’s drought conditions began worsening last fall when the rain stopped falling.

The Naples and Fort Myers areas have seen below average rainfall nearly every month since September, according to National Weather Service data. Lee County has had less than an inch of rain three of the past four months, with March being a particularly dry period in both Fort Myers and Naples.

Kevin Scharfenberg and Steven Ippoliti, forecasters with the National Weather Service in Miami, said this past winter’s weather pattern caused most cold fronts to dissipate before reaching Southwest Florida.

“Typically, cold fronts that move into the region bring us most of our winter rainfall,” they said in an email.

Southwest Florida is the driest region in the state, according to forest service data, and Lee County is the driest county, measuring 661 on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index as of a couple weeks ago. The index measures soil moisture on a zero to 800 scale with higher numbers representing increased fire risk.

Collier measured 615 on the scale, fifth driest in the state.

Forecasts predict Florida’s weather will be hotter and dryer than normal in the coming months, with dry conditions extending into mid- to- late-June. And when the rain does start falling, typically in late May or June, it will be accompanied by lightning, another leading cause of brush fires.

“This is definitely the most active season we’ve seen in several years,” said Susan Lindenmuth, a spokeswoman for the Estero fire district. “Our average heavy wildfire season is in April, May. We’re just in the very beginning of it.”

Get the latest weather forecast at naplesnews.com/weather »

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

The increased fire activity has stressed local fire departments, who battle brush fires on top of their regular work load of house fires, vehicle crashes and medical calls.

Lindenmuth said one of her district’s brush trucks is out of service after being damaged while fighting two Lehigh Acres fires that burned 400 acres and damaged seven homes in early March. Two children eventually confessed to starting one of the fires.

Greater Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said he had brush trucks running 24 hours a day in early March fighting the 7,000-acre Lee Williams fire; one of them is still down for maintenance. It cost the department about $86,000 to fight that fire.

“We don’t budget for a significant event,” he said. “An event like this, we have to figure it out.”

None of Schuldt’s firefighters was hurt fighting the blaze, but fighting brush fires still takes a toll, he said. They’ve seen smaller fires on a weekly, if not daily, basis for weeks, he said.

“The men and women always do a standup job,” Schuldt said. “They thrive under adversity. That’s the nature of the firefighter.”

Laurence LeBuff, whose home on Le Buffs Road was one of the four that burned in the Lee Williams fire, said he wasn’t surprised to see the fire season kick off so early this year.

“These woods have been dry, dry, dry for months and months,” LeBuff said while he and his nephew cleared his lot with a backhoe, dumping debris in three large trash bins.

LeBuff and his wife and daughter are living temporarily with relatives in Golden Gate. Like the Waldecks, LeBuff said his family intends to rebuild on the same plot of wooded land he’s lived on since 1968.

LeBuff said he couldn’t get insurance on the nearly 50-year-old woodframe house. The family is using their limited income, savings and help from the community to rebuild, but LeBuff said he expects it ultimately will cost “more than what we’ve got right now.”

“We’re a Christian family,” LeBuff said. “We put it in God’s hands.”

Daniel Zurbrigg, whose father-in-law Jim Kurth also lost his house in the March fire, said they’ve cleared his Le Buffs Road property and are in the process of starting to rebuild.

“That’s his land. He owns it,” Zurbrigg said of Kurth. “That’s why I think he’s really been able to come to terms and say, ‘That is where I’m going to rebuild.’ “

Out on his property Thursday on Benfield Road, Waldeck said he’s looking for a builder who can take his original designs for his house and rebuild it as close as possible to the way it was before.

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

Waldeck said he built his original house himself. “That was my dream. I designed it.”

But at 56 and having recently survived a heart attack, he said he’s not physically capable of doing it again.

He and his wife are living in an apartment in Golden Gate. The clock is ticking.

“They’re only giving us nine months in the apartment. That’s all the insurance company would give us, nine months,” Waldeck said. “So we have to try to have a house done by nine months.”

Tips for reducing risk of wildfires:

* Maintain at least 30 feet of defensible space around homes and businesses.

* Obey outdoor burning bans and delay burning leaves, brush, trash and debris during dry and windy conditions.

* If camping or hunting, check local restrictions on campfires. Use an approved gas stove as an alternative for heating and cooking. Use charcoal grills only over fireproof surfaces.

* Extinguish smoking materials in an ashtray. Never throw them out your window or onto dry grass.

* Avoid parking and idling on dry grass.

* Avoid using power tools around dry grass and brush, and keep water available.

  • Firefighters put out a smoldering mulch fire at a landscaping business
    Firefighters put out a smoldering mulch fire at a landscaping business
  • Rotondo family home destroyed in brush fire
    Rotondo family home destroyed in brush fire
  • Jonathan Whitlow levels burning mulch
    Jonathan Whitlow levels burning mulch
  • Video: Sunday morning brush fire update
    Video: Sunday morning brush fire update
  • What we know about the brush fire: April 22, 2017
    What we know about the brush fire: April 22, 2017
  • Saturday night: Rick Scott gives update on brush fire
    Saturday night: Rick Scott gives update on brush fire
  • A damaged home off Keane Avenue
    A damaged home off Keane Avenue
  • Saturday: Giraffe returns to pen
    Saturday: Giraffe returns to pen
  • Saturday: Plane does a drop over brush fire in Collier
    Saturday: Plane does a drop over brush fire in Collier
  • 11 a.m. news briefing on brush fires on Saturday, April 22
    11 a.m. news briefing on brush fires on Saturday, April 22
  • Brush fire destroys equipment at American Farms
    Brush fire destroys equipment at American Farms
  • Tammy Smith of Ngala describes how they prepared for the fire
    Tammy Smith of Ngala describes how they prepared for the fire
  • Saturday: Crews fix power lines
    Saturday: Crews fix power lines
  • Saturday April 22, morning briefing on Golden Gate Estate brush fire
    Saturday April 22, morning briefing on Golden Gate Estate brush fire
  • Horse rescue during brush fire
    Horse rescue during brush fire
  • 5 things about the brush fire in Golden Gate Estates
    5 things about the brush fire in Golden Gate Estates
  • Friday night: Officials give update on brush fire
    Friday night: Officials give update on brush fire
  • Friday: Smoke from brush fire
    Friday: Smoke from brush fire
  • Jack Bernsen saves belongings from his home
    Jack Bernsen saves belongings from his home
  • Video: Brush fire Friday in Golden Gate Estates
    Video: Brush fire Friday in Golden Gate Estates
  • How to avoid breathing issues during fire season
    How to avoid breathing issues during fire season
  • Friday: Late afternoon brush fire update
    Friday: Late afternoon brush fire update
  • Friday: Fire crews at scene of brush fire
    Friday: Fire crews at scene of brush fire
  • Friday: Afternoon update on brush fires in Collier
    Friday: Afternoon update on brush fires in Collier
  • Gov. Rick Scott attends brush fires briefing
    Gov. Rick Scott attends brush fires briefing
  • Friday morning update from the scene of the Golden Gate Estates brush fires
    Friday morning update from the scene of the Golden Gate Estates brush fires
  • Friday: Cows move away brush fire
    Friday: Cows move away brush fire
  • Friday: Flames from brush fire
    Friday: Flames from brush fire
  • Avoiding breathing issues during fire season
    Avoiding breathing issues during fire season
  • Brush fire trail cam - Everglades Blvd on Thursday, April 21
    Brush fire trail cam - Everglades Blvd on Thursday, April 21
  • Aerial footage above brush fires in Golden Gate Estates
    Aerial footage above brush fires in Golden Gate Estates
  • Brush fires in Golden Gate Estates
    Brush fires in Golden Gate Estates
  • Crews battle brush fire in Golden Gate Estates
    Crews battle brush fire in Golden Gate Estates
  • Video: A look at Florida's brush fires
    Video: A look at Florida's brush fires
  • Rebuilding efforts after Lee Williams brush fire
    Rebuilding efforts after Lee Williams brush fire
  • 10 tips for protecting your home from brush fires
    10 tips for protecting your home from brush fires
  • Largest Southwest Florida wildfires in the last 10 years
    Largest Southwest Florida wildfires in the last 10 years
  • Video: Brush fire in North Naples
    Video: Brush fire in North Naples
  • Aerial footage of the brush fire in eastern Collier County
    Aerial footage of the brush fire in eastern Collier County
57 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://nplsne.ws/2pgoZUg