Evacuations lifted, roads reopened in Collier brush fire

NAPLES, Fla.  The roads have reopened and evacuees are officially allowed to return home.

But the massive wildfire continues to burn and while most residents are returning to their properties intact, others weren’t as fortunate.

‘Hanging in there’

Jim Kurth barely escaped the flames.

“By the time (firefighters) got there, the fire was in the middle island and in the backyard and they had to go,” said his daughter, Shenna Zurbrigg. “The cops told them they had to get out of there.”

Here’s what was left of Kurth’s home, which he built and stood on Le Buff Road for about 30 years:

Jim Kurth’s home on Le Buff Road was destroyed by a brush fire on Tuesday.

“Hanging in there,” Zurbrigg, in-between sobs, said of her father. “We’re trying to get him the help that he needs.”

Kurth’s home was one of two destroyed by the ongoing brush fire, which also damaged a couple of vehicles and barns.

Approximately 7,500 acres have burned in the Picayune Strand State Forest due to the fire, which was about 40 percent contained as of Wednesday night, the Florida Forest Service said. Three structures, as well as multiple outbuildings, were lost in the fire.


Officials described Wednesday afternoon as the “calm before the storm.”

“Afternoon fire activity is anticipated to increase as humidity decreases and wind gusts increase,” the Florida Fire Service said in a statement. “Firefighters are strategically placed in areas that embers are expected to be of concern while improving containment lines. Wildland firefighting bulldozers are continuing to suppress the wildfire, with shifting winds, as the cold front approaches.”

The fire, which started on Sunday, has also resulted in a dense smoke advisory for the area until 7 a.m. Thursday.

It has also created a surreal experience for Kurth, who was too distraught to speak, his daughter said.

“When you’re living very close to a park that’s full of forest, there’s always the possibility,” Zurbrigg said. “You just never think it’s going to be you.”

WINK News anchor Channing Frampton discussed the loss with Kurth’s family:

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help Kurth get back on his feet.

A race against the clock

Armond Toth and his neighbors on Benfield Road were forced to evacuate their horses when the flames smoke began inching closer to their properties.

But by the time Toth and his family packed their car to leave, it was too late.

“We got to the end of the street and we ran into the fire marshal and he said, ‘Guess what? You’re not going anywhere. The fire just jumped Benfield Road… it’s completely on fire up there, we’re all trapped in here,'” Toth said.

One of Toth’s neighbors took matter into his own hands to save his property.

The man, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years, turned on his sprinklers and watered down his house as best as he could.

“I mean, it literally burnt everything on his property,” Toth said. “But because he was vigilant and stayed there, he was able to save his home. If he did not stay there, his home would probably be engulfed and gone.”

WINK News reporter Kim Powell has more from her interview with Toth:

Traffic developments

Alligator Alley between Collier Boulevard and State Road 29 reopened late Wednesday afternoon after being closed since Tuesday afternoon.

Collier Boulevard between Davis Boulevard and Rattlesnake Hammock Road reopened early Wednesday morning, but intermittent road closures are possible between Golden Gate Parkway and Rattlesnake Hammock Road, according to the state forest service.

Beck Boulevard reopen Wednesday evening, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office said.

WINK News reporter John Trierweiler went live via Facebook and spoke with Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Greg Bueno about how the brush fire has impacted the interstate:

School updates

Collier County Public Schools are open Wednesday.

District personnel will continue monitoring the area near brush fire and and communicate with emergency officials, Collier County schools said in a statement.

Health risks

Smoke from the fire will contain particulate matter, which can be hazardous to the lungs, said Dr. Adam Manko, a plumonologist with Lee Health.

“Certainly young children are going to be very high risk of exposure, as well as older patients, especially those who have underlying or pre-existing lung disease,” he said.

Manko advised residents in areas with smoke should avoid exercising outside. Those with COPD, asthma or lung disease should carry a rescue inhaler, he said.

“Certainly people who have allergies, (the smoke) could set that off,” Manko said. “Having more runny nose, runny eyes, itchy eyes, is something that could be worsen by this. People with underlying heart disease, certainly there’s a potential risk between the lung and heart, being more short of breath.”

Those with health conditions that could worsen with smoke should create an action plan with their physician, Manko said.

“We want to make sure there’s a plan in place so if symptoms do worsen or they’re not improving, you know what to do so you don’t get caught in a bad situation,” he said.

Here’s more from WINK News reporter John-Carlos Estrada’s interview with Manko:

Evacuations

When evacuations were ordered, Dee Dee Crombie didn’t know where to go.

Crombie eventually found her way to the Golden Gate Community Center, where about 30 people spent Tuesday night.

“I was shocked. I’ve never been through anything like that and I said I don’t see any fire but we better do what they said,” she said. “Last night wasn’t so good. It was really scary. We didn’t know if our homes were going to be gone.”

Mandatory evacuations were eventually lifted Wednesday night for Collier County, according to Red Cross officials.

Cypress Trail RV Resort in Fort Myers offered a free four-day stay for those in recreational vehicles that were impacted by the brush fire. The resort used 40 unsold spots to house temporary residents.

Forest Glen and the Aventine at Naples Apartments residents were allowed back to their homes Tuesday night.

WINK News reporter Morgan Frances spent time with some of the evacuees:

The shelter at the Golden Gate Community Center closed as of 9 p.m. Wednesday night.

Tips from the Red Cross

Safety checklist for those returning home after a wildfire:

  • Use caution when entering burned areas as hazards may still exist, including hot spots, which can flare up without warning.
  • Avoid damaged or fallen power lines, poles and downed wires.
  • Watch for ash pits and mark them for safety—warn family and neighbors to keep clear of ash pits also.
  • Watch animals closely and keep them under your direct control. Hidden embers and hot spots could burn your pets’ paws or hooves.
  • Wet debris down to minimize breathing dust particles and put out any remaining embers.
  • Wear leather gloves, long sleeves and pants, and heavy soled shoes to protect your skin.
  • Do not enter your home until fire officials say it is safe.
  • Follow public health guidance on safe cleanup of fire ash and the safe use of masks.
  • Cleaning products, paint, batteries and damaged fuel containers need to be disposed of properly to avoid risk. Ensure your food and water is safe.
  • Discard any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke or soot.
  • Do not ever use water that you think may be contaminated to wash dishes, brush teeth, prepare food, wash hands, make ice or make baby formula.

Tips from the Florida Forest Service

If you’re warned that 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:

Inside

  • 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 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.

Outside

  • 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.
Reporter:Lindsey Sablan
Olivia Mancino
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