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How two Rays families escaped a ‘terrifying’ wildfire

Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows raced from the stadium to meet their wives as what became a 220-acre wildfire threatened their spring rental home.
The wildfire burned over 220 acres, but Charlotte County officials said no homes were lost. [Charlotte County Fire and EMS]

PORT CHARLOTTE — Madison Lowe was trying to drive out of the Placida area neighborhood of their spring rental home toward the Rays stadium Monday when she came face-to-face with it.

“I couldn’t see at all,’’ she said Tuesday. “It was complete smoke. I couldn’t even see an inch in front of me. And there’s ash hitting the car.’’

She immediately called her husband, Rays infielder Brandon Lowe, to tell him the neighborhood appeared to be on fire and the roads she was familiar with leading out were blocked.

“The last thing I heard was, ‘We can’t get out, there’s smoke everywhere,’ ‘’ Brandon Lowe said. “That was in my head. I was terrified what might actually happen.”

He said something to outfielder Austin Meadows, with whom they are sharing the house, then raced out of the Rays complex and jumped in his truck to make the 20-or-so minute drive that seemed to take forever.

“I was doing whatever I could to get back,’’ Brandon Lowe said. “I felt like I was in NASCAR.’’

This video is almost three minutes long but it gives you a good idea of what the firefighters were dealing with on Monday. The fire raced through the Placida Sands neighborhood off Gasparilla Rd. between South Gulf Cove and Rotonda. Be sure to watch it with sound on to fully appreciate the conditions we were facing.

Posted by Charlotte County Fire and EMS on Monday, February 24, 2020

Meadows quickly called his wife, Alexis, and told her that she needed to get out quickly.

Meadows, who was in the lineup for the game that was starting soon, ran first into manager Kevin Cash’s office to tell him he had to leave, then out to the parking lot looking for a ride.

“I was just backing up about to leave when I saw him running in flip-flops with his wallet in one hand and his phone,’’ catcher Mike Zunino said. “I didn’t know if he wanted to tell me something or what, and he said their house is right near a brush fire, so I told him to hop in.’’

Madison went back to the house, and she and Alexis gathered their dogs and some personal possessions, and, with Brandon providing guidance over the phone, found another road out, and they told the guys where to meet them.

Related: Did the Rays just come up with an answer to their attendance problems?

The smoke was visible from the Charlotte Sports Park, a dozen miles away, and understandably more concerning the closer the players got.

“Driving up, it was just a massive cloud,’’ Austin Meadows said. “Just taking everything out in its path. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was unbelievable.’’

Brandon Lowe went back to the house, accompanied by new Rays security director Steve Estep, a former firefighter, to try to secure the open garage door as the power had been cut off, and retrieve some personal items.

The close-up look was harrowing.

“You looked to the left there was a smoke wall, you looked behind the house it was a smoke wall,’’ Brandon Lowe said. “It was pretty wild.’’

Knowing the urgency with which the players left, Cash said it was a bit disconcerting to hear the sirens of the trucks from multiple agencies going by the stadium to the site.

“Throughout the game we could hear all the emergency vehicles flying by,’’ he said. “It makes you wonder.’’

In the end, the wildfire caused only minimal damage, with no loss of lives. Per Charlotte County fire and EMS officials, 36 fire trucks, eight tractors and several helicopters were involved in the effort to get the fire that started in the Sands at Placida neighborhood contained by Monday night, with additional checking and clearing on Tuesday.

There was heat damage, they said, but none of the homes, 40 of which were evacuated, were lost.

Zunino said it was one of those real-life moments that players occasionally have to deal with.

“We’re in here and we’re training for what sometimes seems to be something very glamorous,’’ he said. “But life does happen sometimes. And it can snap you back to reality very quick.’’

The players turned to teammates for temporary housing for them and their dogs, the Meadows staying with Oliver Drake, the Lowes with Hunter Renfroe. Assuming they don’t find any damage upon closer look, they plan to move back into the rental house once power to the neighborhood is restored.

Both All-Stars returned to the Rays lineup on Tuesday in Sarasota, Lowe ripping a triple and a three-run double, Meadows going 0-for-4.

“We had firefighters from five or six different counties come in and they did an unreal job keeping it contained,” Brandon Lowe said. “Thankfully, everyone was safe.”

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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