Cause of Golden Gate Estates fire still under investigation

GOLDEN GATE ESTATES, Fla. Lindsey and Tony Rotondo’s home didn’t stand a chance.

Their house on Kearney Avenue was one of four homes damaged in a fire that broke out Thursday, forced evacuations of about 7,000 homes and burned an estimated 7,068 acres.

“Your heart just drops,” Tony Rotondo said. “It’s like everything you work for it’s just … gone.”

The cause of the blaze known as the 30th Avenue Fire remains unknown five days after it started.

The North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District said Monday morning that a lawn mower had started the fire, but by Monday afternoon, the district retracted that statement.

Florida Forest Service officials stress the cause of the fire, which is 65 percent contained, is still being investigated.

Nine structures, including the four homes, were destroyed in the blaze, the forest service said. It’s part of an active fire season — twice as many wildfires have started this year compared to last, the forest service said.

Devastation, close calls in Lehigh Acres

Recovery efforts are underway in Lehigh Acres, where another major brush fire last week destroyed four homes and forced the evacuation of others as it scorched 400 acres.

A lit cigarette started the blaze, but it’s unlikely the identity of the person who tossed the cigarette will ever be discovered, the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue district said.

That reality incensed Maxine Waters, whose house on 21st Street West was lost to the fire.

“Whoever did that, I hope they have nightmares at night,” Waters said. “I really do, because look, we’ve lost everything, and we don’t know what we’re gonna do. I mean, come on!”

The blaze left Waters and live-in partner Elvis O’Neill searching for answers. They said they couldn’t afford to insure their home.

“It’s been devastating. We have nothing,” Waters said. “All my kids’ pictures and stuff, everything’s gone from 30 years. More than that, just gone. You know just like that. It happened so fast you didn’t have time to do anything. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

Two homes behind Tiffany Vance’s 22nd Street West residence were among those leveled.

“It’s just amazing how fast things just happen and accelerate,” Vance said.

Weekend rains that totaled 4.36 inches helped tamp down the fire, which began Thursday and was 95 percent contained by Saturday night. Persistence from firefighters was also key, Vance said.

“I credit the firefighters major time,” she said. “They were out here for three days straight.”

‘Thank you for saving the world’

A group of children from the Raffia Preserve neighborhood on Monday presented firefighters from the Greater Naples Fire District a check with part of the proceeds they raised on Sunday from a lemonade and baked goods stand.

“I just want to say thank you for saving the world,” said Anthony Santone, one of the children.

The children raised about $300. The Castle Group, which manages the Raffia Preserve property, matched the children’s donation, as did the Lennar Corporation. The proceeds will be split amongst the firefighters, NGALA Wildlife Preserve, and a family who lost their home.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Neera Kapur Scarboro, the mother of one of the children. “Our kids, they do this and they raise the money, and there’s no thought about doing anything with it except giving it away.”

WINK News reporter Taylor Bisacky captured the check presentation on video:

Animals in line of fire

The Golden Gate Estates fire forced evacuations at the NGALA Wildlife Preserve and the Shy Wolf Sanctuary, where volunteers scrambled to find homes for 60 animals.

“It was terrifying for our volunteers,” sanctuary president Deanna Deppen said.

It was also stressful for the animals, some of which had to be sedated.

WINK News reporter Nicole Papageorge captured video Monday of some of them returning to the sanctuary.

A rhinoceros at the NGALA Wildlife Preserve couldn’t be evacuated, so CEO Donovan Smith stayed back to protect it. He suffered second-degree burns and was taken to Tampa General Hospital.

“Hopefully I’ll get better over the next couple of days,” Smith said. I’m on the road
to recovery.”

He told WINK News reporter Kelsey Kushner why he was willing to risk his life:

WINK News reporter Olivia Mancino caught up with a Golden Gate Estates resident who sprinted nearly a mile to save a horse that was in imminent danger from the fire: