‘Only home we ever had’ destroyed by Collier brush fire

NAPLES, Fla. Laurence LeBuff was the first to build on the road bearing his family name.

It was a small home. Three bedrooms with a carport.

They moved into it in 1970 and lived there until a brush fire destroyed it on Tuesday.

“You know, it’s all material stuff but the memories are still there,” he said Thursday. “I had stuff actually from my birth. I had the bracelet that they brought me home from the hospital with when I was born.”

LeBuff, his wife and daughter were able to grab clothes, toothbrushes, medicine and their cat.

“We were prepared for it, you know,” he said. “It’s actually worse today than it was yesterday because a lot of stuff wearing off and starting to kick in. Emotions are kicking in.”

LeBuff’s home was one of three consumed by an ongoing brush fire that entered into its fifth day on Thursday.

“This used to be the front steps going up to the porch and that’s the carport where I had the tractor,” he said while walking through rubble and charred appliances.

Losing everything was better than the alternative, he said.

“Everything else can be replaced,” he said. “Lives can’t be. That’s the most important thing.”

WINK News reporter Taylor Bisacky spent time with LeBuff while he surveyed the damage:

Heart attack, then fire

The blaze, which at one point forced mandatory evacuations and shut down Collier Boulevard and I-75 along Alligator Alley, burned approximately 7,500 acres in the Picayune Strand State Forest and was 50 percent contained by Thursday afternoon, meaning firefighters have created a fuel break (removal of items that can fuel a fire) around half of the impacted area.

Falling trees damaged by fire brought down powerlines on Benfield Road, which prevented horse owners from returning to Triple-V Ranch.

“You know, as long as everyone is okay, our barn’s still standing,” said ranch owner Alli Kegan.

Todd and Monique Waldeck spent Thursday digging through what was left of their home.

It was the 1600 square foot dream home Todd Waldeck built about 15 years ago.

“I had top dollar plumbing,” he said. “12-inch rain shower head that cost $800. Who can afford a shower head for $800? All that’s gone.”

Todd Waldeck was home, less than two weeks after suffering a heart attack, when thick smoke surrounded the residence.

He and his wife voluntarily evacuated, thinking flames wouldn’t reach their home.

The couple has home insurance, but are not sure if they can replicate what was once their home.

“I can built it again, I just don’t know with the insurance,” Todd Waldeck said.

Smoke impacts kids

Less than 10 students at Lely Elementary School were picked up by their parents Thursday after complaining of smoke from the brush fire, Collier County Public Schools said.

Some school staff wore masks to protect themselves.

The school remained open, but parents like Karla Soto were called if their child said they felt sick.

“He hasn’t been feeling well,” she said of her son. “Same as my daughter. I have a one year old, and she’s been coughing and throwing up.”

Smoke was present in the area until about noon when winds shifted from northeast to southwest.

David Rosales, who sells produce at a farm market, was thankful for the wind shift.

“It was pretty bad. You could feel it in the back of your throat,” he said. “My mama had to go to the hospital because it was so bad. She’s doing much better now.”

Environmental impact

The wildlife in the Picayune Strand State Forest is also dealing with the devastation.

“It’s going to be a heavy loss for quite awhile,” said Joanna Fitzgerald, director of the Von Arx Wildlife Hospital.

Hundreds of possums, raccoons, reptiles and birds were displaced after their habitats were destroyed.

Zookeepers at the Naples Zoo were forced to take in their birds because of the heavy smoke, according to Liz Harmon, the zoo’s director of Animal Programs.

“The birds are very sensitive to bad air quality,” she said. “We do have a lot of plans in place and we do make sure we keep the animals safe no matter what the situation is.”

With the loss of their homes, animals may start migrating toward populated areas.

Those who come across an injured animal are asked contact the Conservancy of Southwest Florida at 239-262-0304.

WINK News reporter John-Carlos Estrada has more information from his interviews with Fitzgerald and Harmon:

Homeowner’s insurance

Homeowners should talk with their insurance agent every 1-2 years to know what their policy covers, said Larry Snider, a State Farm insurance agent.

“You have market value, that’s what everybody thinks they’re going to get, that’s what your home can sell for, but that’s not what we look at,” he said. “Insurance is based on replacement costs, what it is going to cost to rebuild your home and put it back to the way it needs to be.”

Snider recommends homeowners to take pictures of everything they own every three years.

“In your policy, you’re going to have property damage and it may say for your property $100,000,” he said. “That doesn’t mean if your home’s burned down the company’s going to give you $100,000. You’re going to have to itemize everything.”

If a car is destroyed, a car insurance policy will cover the vehicle’s market value, Snider said. But with home insurance, payment is based on stated value policy.

“Which means if you have a $250,000 home, you’re going to get $250,000 up to that,” he said. It’s called replacement. So we’re going to rebuild your home. It’s to rebuild your home, not what you can sell it for.”

A home insurance policy could cover a home that was only damaged by the fire, but it’s up to the homeowner to determine if it’s worth filing a claim, Snider said.

“With homeowners, the deductibles are so high, it may be minor damage,” he said. “So you just have to weigh is it worth filing the claim for or are you going to have to eat it.”

Here’s additional information from WINK News Call for Action reporter Lindsey Sablan’s interview with Snider:

Cleaning the ash, smoke

If washing ash from a vehicle or wanting to remove the smell of smoke, it may be better to leave it up to a professional:

Additional tips

If returning to an area scorched by brush fire, here are things to look out for:

Reporter:Lindsey Sablan
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