Two wildfires in Collier County merged on Thursday morning, creating a singular 8,000-acre blaze that led to mandatory evacuations outside Naples and forced a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 75 to close down.
The Collier County blaze is one of many fires that are currently burning throughout Southwest Florida, but it is the biggest and most threatening to structures and homes, according to the Florida Forestry Service. It was 10 percent contained as of 11 a.m. Thursday.
The county has implemented mandatory evacuations for residents in wooded areas east of Naples, including the Club Naples RV Resort and 30 homes in the Collier County area of Golden Gate Estates. The Florida Highway Patrol shut down the first 20 miles of Alligator Alley because of the fire.
“We are monitoring the brush fires in (Southwest Florida). This afternoon I will be traveling to Collier County to receive an update from local emergency management officials,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a statement on Thursday.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management said Thursday that at least 13 homes have been destroyed or damaged by the fire so far.
“The current weather conditions are expected through tonight and tomorrow,” said Kingman Schuldt, chief of the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District. “We expect this to be an active operation for days to come. We are trying to get into a position to access and cut the fire off in some areas.”
The county’s sheriff’s office said it is using its helicopter to help. Since Wednesday morning, when the fire first began as two independent blazes, their helicopter had dropped 121 buckets of water, with 240 gallons of water in each bucket as of 11 a.m. Thursday.
Meteorologists from the National Weather Service said Thursday that a combination of high winds and low humidity created perfect conditions for the fire to grow to its current size. The area has seen sustained winds of up to 25 mph, which causes wildfires to spread quickly.
“We have a significant weather advisory out for gusty wind conditions in the region,” said Paxton Fell, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Miami office. “We’ve seen some gusts reach up to 30 miles per hour and even more.”
Also contributing to the fire was Southwest Florida’s ongoing drought, Fell said. The region is considered to be in a severe drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor.
Fell says that there will be low humidity for the rest of Thursday and into Friday morning. There is a possibility rain could arrive to help firefighters contain the fire over the weekend, but the forecast for the area is uncertain due to an area of low pressure in the Atlantic.
“Hopefully we can squeeze enough rain out of (the next front) to help put these fires out,” Fell said.