Wildfire scorches nearly 8,700 acres in Collier; drought continues, fueling risk of more fires

A tanker helicopter flies out of the Collier County fire zone to reload. Credit: Florida Forest Service

A wildfire burning on 8,663 acres in southwest Florida near Naples has destroyed 12 homes and 33 buildings, the Florida Forest Service reported Monday at a news conference.

At midday, only half of the “38th Avenue Southeast” fire in Collier County was contained (surrounded) by fire breaks built and managed by firefighters, meaning half of the perimeter could continue to expand.

The 38th Avenue Southeast fire along I-75 in Collier County, west of Everglades Boulevard and east of Naples, covered 8,663 acres by midday Monday. Credit: Florida Forest Service

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, whose department includes the Florida Forest Service, reiterated that this time of the year is prime fire season, when drought makes conditions ideal for wildfires started by lightning, accidental sparks, and intentional burning of debris in yards and forests.

“We are at the height of our fire season,” Fried said in press conference in Naples. “This is definitely not the time to be letting our guards down.”

Sean Allen, district manager of the Caloosahatchee Forestry Center, said at the press conference that Collier County fire is 50 percent contained and that firefighters with heavy equipment and aircraft are working to extend fire breaks around the rest of the fire’s perimeter.

Their best hope for “reducing” and then “controlling” the fire, rather than partially “containing” it, is several days of lot rainfall – but the odds are not good.

“Chances for rain are staying kind of low, and the potential for fires is still extreme at this time,” Allen said. “Until we get a significant amount of rain, our drought index is going to remain high, fuels are going to remain volatile and ready to go at any time.”

State and local officials said firefighters are working to protect forests, homes and outbuildings, while keeping a close eye on the outskirts of Naples and other urban areas that are away from the fire but too close for comfort.

The fire also is close to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last habitats for endangered Florida panthers.

State and local authorities ordered mandatory evacuations near the 36th Avenue Southeast fire, and shelters were open. Fried and local authorities urged residents in the vicinity to have bags packed and be ready to flee on short notice.

Elsewhere, nearly 4,000 acres of forests, reaching some rural communities, have burned in northwest Florida, and scores of smaller fires are active around the state, according to the Forest Service.