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Smoke shuts down a segment of I-75 in North Fort Myers

By Staff | May 19, 2020

The Florida Highway Patrol shut down Interstate 75 for nearly two hours Monday morning near Bayshore Road at mile marker 144 due to poor visibility from a nearby fire.

The Bayshore Fire District responded Sunday afternoon to a fire at MW Horticulture, which has been the site of numerous mulch fires since the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The FHP worked to close the highway shortly after 10 a.m., diverting southbound traffic off at Tucker’s Grade at exit 158 and northbound at Bayshore Road at exit 143. The highway was reopened in that area shortly before noon.

Bayshore placed a stop work order on MW, said owner Denise Houghtaling, which she said was standard for situations like this as they don’t take in any more debris.

Houghtaling said she suspects arson might have had something to do with the fire and she believes arson was the likely cause of a fire there in February as well. She believes it was the same person and that they are narrowing down suspects.

Houghtaling said there was no lightning in the area, though it has been a much drier spring than normal. She said that the fire started in a fresh pile of greenwaste, which is a combination of trees, brush, palm fronds and the like.

“The area it started in was brought in during the past 24 to 48 hours. There is no reason it would spontaneously combust that quick except if it was ignited,” Houghtaling said. “It didn’t have a chance to decompose.”

On the company’s Facebook page, Houghtaling in a statement said the company has been on the scene the whole time to bring in equipment to smother the fire along with the Bayshore fire department.

“We’re the only ones who have the ability to put out the fire. The fire department stands by and waters the pile so it doesn’t spread,” Houghtaling said. “The only thing you can do is smother it with dirt and they don’t have the equipment to do that. We’re trained on how to get the fire out.”

MW Horticulture has been embroiled in controversy over the past few years. It started after the company was denied the ability to grind debris from Irma, which Houghtaling said was the main reason for the fires that have happened there.

The company was ordered by the Lee County Hearing Examiner to remove the mulch in October 2018 or face fines. Lee County then filed a lawsuit in August 2019 after the fires continued and residents nearby complained of smoke and odor.

The last fire took place in February and started in a hardwood pile, which Houghtaling said also would be difficult to have ignited on its own.

News reports Tuesday showed the fire continued to smolder with smoke billowing from the mulch piles,