IMMOKALEE, Fla. Rain began falling around noon Wednesday on a massive brush fire still burning north of Alligator Alley.
The blaze known as the Cowbell Fire covered more than 16,000 acres, an area roughly equivalent to half the size of the city of Fort Myers, in the Big Cypress National Preserve as of Wednesday evening, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Firefighters had it 35 percent contained.
Heavy downpours were falling on and around the fire shortly before 4 p.m., but dissipated and moved west, WINK meteorologist Scott Zedeker said. Only isolated rain is expected in the area Wednesday night.
WINK News live-streamed video of the rain as it fell on Interstate 75, where drivers had earlier Wednesday dealt with limited visibility between mile marker 55 and 70:
The blaze started March 30 on an estimated 300 acres but grew by about 13 times in size Sunday. On Tuesday, flames could be seen in the I-75 median.
Crews are intentionally burning some of the land within the preserve to keep the Cowbell Fire from spreading.
“I feel like I can’t even choke it’s too hard the smoke I have to cover my face and drink water and everything I don’t know how long it’s going to be like this over there, said Gelmi Wilkinson, a driver on the alley.
WINK News reporter John Trierweiler showcased the smoke while driving through Alligator Alley:
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Tuesday as more than 100 fires burned across the state. Scott on Wednesday directed the Florida National Guard to provide a UH-60 “Blackhawk” helicopter to be placed on standby for potential firefighting missions.
Most of Southwest Florida is in the midst of severe drought, fueling the fire risk.
“The fear is that we are already in extremely dry conditions, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Putnam said. “We are already seeing a record number of fires, and we don’t see any relief in sight.”
A fire that burned more than 7,000 acres last month in the Picayune Strand State Forest proved a drain on resources for Southwest Florida firefighting agencies. It costs the North Collier Fire and Rescue District $100,000, and the district is spending additional money on the Cowbell Fire.
The district stands to recoup some funds released through the governor’s state of emergency declaration, but it’s unclear how much they’ll get.
Massive brush fires also sap the district’s manpower.
“It is exhausting,” Assistant Chief Jorge Aguilera said. “We have normal calls still going on and a community to provide coverage for, and that call volume doesn’t stop just because there is a brush fire going on.”
Still, it’s a team effort. Firefighters from across the country are working 12 to 16 hours at a time to battle the blaze.
“They come from all over,” said Lance Elmore, a firefighter from Arkansas. “I believe we have about 11 different states that firefighters come from.”
WINK News anchor Channing Frampton spoke with Elmore and others working to contain the blaze:
The following areas within the Big Cypress National Reserve are closed:
- Pink Jeep, Bear Island and Gator Head campgrounds
- The road leading into the preserve sanctuary except to residents
- All trails between State Road 29, L-28 Canal and north of Interstate 75
- Section of the Florida trail
- Public land west of the L-28 Canal, north of Alligator Alley and east of State Road 29
WINK News reporter Nicole Valdes went live via Facebook with the Florida Forest Service:
Helpful hints from the Florida Forest Service
If a wildfire is threatening your area:
- Listen to your local media for reports and evacuation information. Follow the instructions of local officials.
- Back your car into the garage or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape. Shut doors and roll up windows. Leave the key in the ignition. Close garage windows and doors, but leave them unlocked. Disconnect automatic garage door openers.
- Confine pets to one room; make plans to take your pets in case you must evacuate.
Arrange temporary housing at a friend or relative’s home outside the threatened area.
If you have time, here’s how to protect your home:
- Close windows, vents, doors, blinds, or noncombustible window coverings and heavy drapes. Remove lightweight curtains.
- Shut off all utilities if possible, including bottled gas.
- Open the fireplace damper. Close fireplace screens.
- Move flammable furniture into the center of the home away from windows and sliding glass doors.
- Turn on a light in each room to increase the visibility of your home in heavy smoke.
- Seal attic and ground vents with pre-cut noncombustible coverings.
- Turn off propane tanks.
- Place combustible patio furniture inside.
- Connect the garden hose to outside taps.
- Place lawn sprinklers on the roof and near above-ground fuel tanks. Wetting the roof may help if it is shake-shingled.
- Wet or remove shrubs within 15 feet of the home.