Families were quickly evacuated when the Golden Gate Estates fire started burning around 2:45 p.m. on Friday.
It’s becoming clear how powerful the fire was and the extent of the damage caused by the flames. Some homes in the area were reduced to nothing but a few walls by the inferno.
As of Monday afternoon, the fire is 90% contained. But, crews with North Collier Fire Rescue and Florida Forestry told WINK News they would remain at the scene until the fire is totally in their control without hotspots.
Families are grateful to the firefighters and the sheriff’s deputies, who were first to arrive at the scene. One family believes that without their quick response, they would have lost more than their home.
The Romero family has lived in their dream home in the Golden Gate Estates for over a decade. But on Friday, their dream home got torched by the Golden Gate Estates brush fire.
“I’m just very thankful to God that my mom was alive,” Jefferson Romero said.
Jeffersons’s mom was in the house when the flames began approaching the house. Jefferson lives in North Carolina, so when he got the call explaining that his mom was trapped, he did the only thing he could at the time.
“I just got on my knees and prayed. And thanks to God, he sent an angel, and the cop was able to get her out just in time, and she’s alive,” Jefferson said.
The family said the Collier County deputy who saved her is a hero.
The other heroes are the firefighters fighting to save lives and as many homes as possible in the dry, windy conditions.
WINK News spoke with Heather Mazurkiewicz, the North Collier Fire District public information officer, about the flames.
“The majority of our firefighters also live here. So, when they are fighting to save somebody’s house, they kind of take it personally, it’s like saving their own home, or it’s their neighbor’s home. So, you know, everything that they do, they do that. And they put their heart into all of it,” Mazurkiewicz said.
On Sunday, the Romero’s returned home to look for anything to salvage. Jefferson found something sentimental to him and his mother.
“I found a little heart yesterday that said my name on it that I gave to her when I was like in seventh grade that I guess she kept in a drawer,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson doesn’t care about what happens next because he has what’s most precious to him, family.
“I’m just happy that he’s here and mom is here, and let me hold them in and kiss them because they mean the world to me,” Jefferson said.
The Romero’s said they’re staying with family and grateful nobody else was hurt in the destructive flames.
Another man’s home was surrounded by a ring of fire, losing his barn in the brush fire but is thankful his house and pets are okay.
“Saw where it was, and I looked at the wind direction. I knew it was headed directly towards the house,” Steve Milette said.
Milette watched the flames from a safe place but felt the darkness filling him.
“Darkness. You know, it’s just nothing but smoke in here. You couldn’t barely couldn’t see the house, you know, from the street,” Milette said. “Couldn’t see much of anything. You couldn’t really tell how bad it really was. Until you got closer.”
But when he got closer, Milette saw his barn filled with flames and smoke.
“So inside the shop. On the left side, there was a camper, a truck camper. On the right side, I have a project Jeep that I’ve been working on. The right side is more automotive, you know, repair type equipment and then a woodshop and then above upstairs, a man cave air conditioned man caves all gone,” Milette said.
Outside the barn were two cars and a boat torched by the flames.
“That’s a boat that my son was working on for his grandfather just finished it. There’s a couple of cars they were they weren’t junk cars it was were active cars that were lost,” Milette said.
While devastating, there remains a silver lining. Inside the ring of fire, Steve’s home, with his golden retriever inside stood untouched and unharmed.
Meanwhile, for Elaine Garcia, a two-by-three faded photo with bent edges is what’s left of her late husband, Paul. She sold her Golden Gate Estates home a few months ago and settled into her new apartment.
“I put my stuff in a trailer, and my neighbors were kind enough to let me keep it on their property,” Garcia said.
All were locked up and safely tucked away until Friday afternoon.
“Mostly everything inside was melted. Plastic. Smoke damage, water damage. Kids photos, birthday photos. Memories of my husband who passed away, all of his stuff that I kept,” Garcia said.
On Monday, she saw the state of her belongings and her old neighborhood for the first time.
“All that loss is sad,” Garcia said.
Nevertheless, Garcia was smiling through the pain while she told WINK News about her life with Paul.
“It was either him or I taking the pictures because we had four children. So he was either in the picture, or I was in the picture,” Garcia said.
His sense of humor was everything to Garcia.
“It’s funny, it’s even took one of the pictures because we’re always taking pictures of each other and the kids that he imposed me and one of the pictures, and I thought that was adorable. It was his idea. So that was so cute,” Garcia said.
All this and more are memories stronger than any fire could burn away.