Florida blaze spreads after ripping through homes, evacuating thousands
A growing brush fire in South Florida is destroying buildings and forcing thousands of people from their homes as emergency crews from across the state scramble to beat back the blaze.
Officials said Saturday morning that the fire spread from 4,800 acres to 5,500 acres overnight in Collier County, which borders the Gulf of Mexico just south of Fort Myers. The blaze destroyed nine homes, as well as some cars, in the past day and is only 10% contained, officials claim.
Local government first ordered mandatory evacuations on Thursday as the then-400-acre fire threatened a large residential part of Naples. By the next day it had grown to more than 10 times the size. Officials confirmed that residents in 7,000 homes have been ordered to evacuate, although some people have chosen not to leave.
More than 100 Florida Forest Service crews are on the ground battling the blaze along with more than 300 contractors, plus law enforcement. On Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott deployed National Guard resources to assist, along with a stern warning to residents.
“These wildfires are dangerous and if you’re within the evacuation area, do not stay in your home,” he said Friday. “Be sure to follow the evacuation orders from local officials.”
Scott, after meeting with emergency officials Saturday, promised to stand by those affected and urged people to follow evacuation orders.
“Let’s be clear, these fires are dangerous. They’re extremely dangerous so we need to be very cautious,” he said. “The direction of the fire can change in a moment’s notice and the fire can move very very very rapidly.”
Scott lauded President Trump’s administration, which he said was “very responsive” to the fire. The federal government will help reimburse Florida for the costs associated with fighting the fire. Scott clarified he hasn’t talked to the president about the matter. The state couldn’t provide an estimate as to how much the firefighting effort will cost.
Officials said Saturday they had hoped to contain the fire overnight, but to no avail. Kingman Shuldt, a fire chief with Greater Naples Fire agency, said the fire is pressing westward. There’s worry if the fire jumps a popular thoroughfare, it could threaten more densely populated areas.
Schuldt said ground in the area is very dry, describing it as “double dead.” He said crews are preparing for another firefight on Saturday.
“It’s a very dangerous task out there,” he said. “Very very dangerous.”
Officials offered no time frame as to when residents evacuated from their homes will be able to return home. That, they said, depends on the progress made fighting the fire.
Dan Summers, Collier County’s director of emergency services, said as many as 10 airplanes would be doing water drops in the area on Saturday.
On Friday, the National Guard was deploying Blackhawk helicopters to help tame the 100-foot flames. About 100 deputies went through neighborhoods and door to door to try to evacuate residents.
Officials on Saturday didn’t offer a reason for how the fire started, saying the cause of the blaze is under investigation.
The Sunshine State has seen a steep increase in wildfires in 2017. Earlier this month, Scott issued a state of emergency, adding there are more than 100 active wildfires across the state threatening about 20,000 acres of land. In the first three months of 2017, wildfires burned 250% more land in Florida than they had in the same time frame the year before.
Scott said the state also continues to battle other fires outside of Naples, including a more than 600-acre fire in Polk County, which has prompted mandatory evacuations in the central part of the state. A more than 400-acre fire in Lee County, just north of Naples, has already damaged or destroyed 13 homes and caused the mandatory evacuations of more than 2,000 homes. Later on Saturday, the governor will visit the damage in Lee County.