GOLDEN GATE ESTATES, Fla. Estimates for the size of the fire that has menaced Collier County since Thursday jumped from 5,531 acres to 7,034 acres Sunday.
Better mapping and continued fire activity are the reasons for the increase, Florida Forest Service Incident Commander John Kern said. The blaze, known as the 30th Avenue Fire, is 50 percent contained.
Evacuations were lifted Sunday morning as firefighters and rain began to tamp down the flames, the Forest Service said. The rain continued to help moderate the fire activity throughout the day.
Collier County schools will be open as scheduled Monday, with no changes to bus routes, the school district said.
Fire officials provided an update earlier Sunday:
Gov. Rick Scott spoke at another press conference Sunday morning expressing his appreciation to the first responders.
“Firefighters and first responders from all across the state have been fighting the wildfires in Southwest Florida day and night, and we are all incredibly grateful for their hard work, Scott said. “I ask that if you know or see any firefighters and first responders in your communities that you take the time to thank them for bravely protecting our state.”
‘Nothing left but a shell’
Approximately 7,000 homes were evacuated since the blaze began Thursday afternoon near Everglades Boulevard and 30th Avenue Southeast.
Three homes were destroyed, according to fire officials. Others sustained extensive damage to their property, like Luanne Thomas and her son Anthony Alston, who live on Kearney Avenue.
Alston described the frightening scene as the flames approached.
“It was engulfed on both sides of Kearney Avenue,” he said. “It was a complete tunnel we went through.”
They narrowly escaped the blaze as they evacuated and returned home Sunday to find their home intact.
“We pulled in and were like, ‘Oh my God, we have a house, the house is intact!'” Thomas said. “And then we saw the animals and were like, ‘We have animals!'”
They weren’t entirely spared. Some of the trucks they keep on the property for the moving company they own were destroyed. One was full of antiques and family mementos Thomas and Alston owned.
“I cried a lot,” Thomas said. “I think I’m done crying, but I mean it was a lot of stuff we just accumulated over the years.”
“There’s nothing left but a shell,” Alston said. “Just got to clean up the pieces and keep on going.”
Neighbor Shaina Muth and her family dreamed of turning their land into an organic vegetable farm and finished installing irrigation equipment for a greenhouse in February. Two months later, the heat from the fire had melted their pump valves.
“For a farmer, the water is very important,” Muth said. “You can’t grow your fields without the water.”
Water in the form of rain was a welcome sign for residents and firefighters alike this weekend.
“The western half of the fire received some substantial rain, anywhere from half an inch to an inch,” Kern said Sunday. “We’re going to take advantage of the weather from yesterday and today’s forecast and secure our lines while the fire activity is moderate.”
While residents are able to return to their homes, they should be careful when entering the fire area and expect smoky conditions with some areas of limited visibility, the forest service said. They’re also urged to keep an eye on any power lines, trees or branches that could pose a threat.
Below is a map of the since-cleared evacuation zones for the fire. People living within the yellow line had to evacuate, while people living within the blue line could voluntarily leave their homes.
The NGALA Wildlife preserve was within the evacuation boundaries and had to clear animals from their habitats. The animals were able to return Sunday, as the preserve shared on Facebook page:
WINK News reporter Jessica Alpern went live via Facebook to showcase the damage sustained in the fire along Kearney Avenue:
Residents are urged to call 911 if flames become visible near homes or outside of areas that have already burned. Any power interruptions or power line safety issues should be reported to Florida Power and Light at 1-800-4-OUTAGE (1-800-468-8243).