A series of brush fires that destroyed 400 acres and damaged at least seven homes over the weekend brought the devastating impact of fire season home to Lehigh Acres residents.
The brush fires started early Sunday afternoon and, with the high winds and tinder dry conditions, spread quickly, threatening numerous homes, forcing evacuations and the closure of state Road 82 for a time.
There were two main fires and each burned nearly 200 acres. One off Calet Avenue South damaged one home, while a second, near Sally Avenue, damaged six before it was almost completely contained.
Burned spots left by Sunday’s fires.
The Veterans Park Recreation Center was opened as an evacuation center, but was closed down at 10 p.m. when people in the affected areas were finally allowed to return home.
Firefighters throughout Southwest Florida were in still the area Monday morning doing mop-up work in an effort to keep the blazes, which were both contained but not deemed fully under control, from re-igniting.
The cause of the fires remained unknown Monday.
Officials are urging caution while dry conditions continue.
Rodney Wynn, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Tampa, said this is the driest time of the year and, with two more months remaining in dry season, the threat of brush fires is only expected to get worse.
"It has been unseasonably dry and this is the most dangerous time for brush fires to spark up and get out of control," Wynn said.
According to the National Weather Service, the area has had 2.5 inches of rain this winter, which is less than half the normal amount of 5.8. This puts the area in a moderate drought situation.
Wynn said there was little in the forecast to suggest things are going to change anytime soon.
"Rainy season doesn't come until late April or early May, so we have two whole months of fire season remaining," Wynn said.
Although the fires were contained as of Monday, the threat of more high winds, with gusts up to 30 mph and low humidity, led to the possibility of more breakouts and possible re-kindles.
"Humidity isn't quite at critical levels, but the wind speed is a main ingredient in spreading these fires," said Dustin Norman of the National Weather Service. "Any ongoing fire is difficult to contain with wind like this. It will start dying off in the afternoon with our typical easterly flow."
The wind wasn't expected to die down until Tuesday or today, and the extended weather forecasts had only chances of spotty showers and not the soaker needed to tamp down the fire risk.
Until the rain finally does come, Wynn said due diligence is the best way to avoid further brush fires.
"If you're going to be anywhere where you're going to make a fire, make sure everything is put out properly and don't toss out any cigarette butts," Wynn said. "There's a lot you can do, just make sure you put any fire risk out."
Local businesses have stepped up to help. Culver's was expected to give out 150 burgers to the firefighters, while Publix was to donate bottled water.
Because of their diligence, fire crews were able to save more than 100 homes.