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For many, relief follows 400-acre brush fire

By Staff | Apr 22, 2017

Roslyn York, and many others in the area of 21st Street West, were very lucky to still have their homes Saturday after a huge brush fire swept the neighborhood late Friday and early Saturday.

York’s house was among those spared as the charred remains of the wooded areas around their Lehigh Acres homes served as reminders of what happened.

“It was amazing. It started on Ann and came this way and lasted five hours. We put the sprinklers on, but it got the neighbor’s garage,” York said. “The firefighters were amazing and they keep checking for hot spots. We were watering the side of our house. I’m doing the rain dance.”

Dance or not, the rains finally came to the area late Saturday, giving the parched, tinder-dry area a much-needed drink.

Robert Dilallo, Lehigh Acres fire chief, said the fire started around 5 p.m. Friday afternoon at 19th street and Ann Avenue by a lit cigarette in an area where children are let off after school.

“A witness saw when the fire started and contacted our arson investigators. They’re good at following the pattern of where a fire starts and the V pattern took them right to a cigarette butt,” Dilallo said.

Dilallo said the department put out many smaller fires all week, but this one burned quickly. When it was over, around 400 acres were destroyed.

“It was a wind-driven fire. Because it was so dry it spread so quickly. We thought we would be able to stop it at Sunshine, but it jumped the road,” Dilallo said.

The fire slowed at Harns Marsh Middle School, where firefighters were able to knock it out as there was little fuel to spread the fire.

Four homes and a barn were destroyed, with 13 structures damaged. Eleven vehicles were lost and 16 others damaged.

Gov. Rick Scott was among those who came to check out the damage. Dilallo said the governor was very helpful, as was Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott.

“He put out a government grant last night that will help us with 75 percent of the cost of the fire. He spoke to the homeowners who lost their homes,” Dilallo said. “We told him we need a countywide burn ban. Cape Coral and the special districts have one, including Bayshore.”

Unincorporated Lee County has not imposed one. Dilallo said he will likely impose one at his next meeting Tuesday, though a county ban has more teeth.

Other than one firefighter becoming dehydrated, no other injuries were reported. Units from as far as Sarasota and Marco Island came overnight Friday to help fight the blaze, Dilallo said. Two Blackhawk choppers also helped by pouring water onto the fire.

Other units were fighting other fires in Charlotte and Collier counties.

Two homes on 21st Street were completely burned. Firefighters came back to the scene Saturday afternoon to hose down smoldering areas that could reignite the flames.

There wasn’t much left to catch. Wooded areas were completely charred, the ground a light gray from areas completely burned out.

Susie McIntyre, a listing agent who was working on a home on 21st Street, saw the fire near that home stop at the property line. She said she didn’t know much about it until it was almost to the door.

“At 4:30 p.m. I heard sirens and kept hearing them, so I checked it out. The woman across from me told me to water the lawn so the fire wouldn’t get me,” McIntyre said. “I saw flames and black smoke and the house that went down.”

McIntyre left the house before 5 p.m. and called the owner to tell him his house might not be there in the morning. She had no hoses or sprinkler system.

Dilallo said it was the hard work of firefighters and the public that spared many more homes like McIntyre’s.

“When those fires rage, we don’t see them. We put units on homes in the path of the fire and we go at it. There were so many fires, we were protecting structures and having a hard time putting the fire out,” Dilallo said.