Fire flares up around River Ranch, forcing road closures

- After a brush fire forced hundreds of Polk County residents to flee Wednesday, a portion of the blaze has flared back up, causing more widespread road closures Friday morning.

While no evacuation orders were in placed back in effect, campers in the area were asked to seek alternative shelter.

A Dense Smoke Advisory was put into effect for Polk County and remain active until 10 a.m. 

Polk Fire Rescue says due to "extremely low visibility," State Road 60 is closed in both directions from County Road 630 to Yeehaw Junction. The road is also closed between County Road 630 and Walk in Water Road.

Thursday evening, Polk County Fire Rescue said 4,000 total acres had burned, from State Road 60 to south of County Road 630, including areas near the River Ranch Hunting Club and Indian Lake Estates. Nine mobile homes and two single family homes were burned in the fires. Several other sheds, outbuildings, and barns were also destroyed, and one family's pet dog was confirmed dead.

Wednesday, 800 residents of the Indian Lake Estates area were ordered out of their homes as firefighters battled fast-moving flames that were fed by whipping winds.  Most were able to return home today as fire crews contained the blaze, but a small section has broken out. There were no new evacuation orders Thursday night, but those who camp or reside in the River Ranch Hunt Club were asked to vacate the camps and seek alternative shelter.

Fire crews asked residents to stay alert and watch for emergency vehicles, adding there may be visible hot spots. They said low winds would help stop the fire from spreading, but could cause smoky conditions along SR 60 and County Road 630.

With the dry season, comes the wildfire season and this year it got off to an early start. Dozens of fires broke out across the state Wednesday. In the Bay Area, we've only had a few inches of rain since October. Normally, the dry season runs from March until May. But this year, Florida forest workers say it got off to an early start, in January.  

Wednesday afternoon, dry conditions combined with high winds to fuel the fast-moving brush fire in southeastern Polk County.  Polk Fire Rescue issued mandatory evacuations for all 800 homes in the Indian Lakes Estates, as well as River Ranch hunting grounds as crews from several agencies tried to battle the wind-whipped flames.

The area is so rural that it can be very difficult to get homeowner's insurance, meaning residents could be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars.

"It really hasn't sunk in that I lost a lot over there," lamented Richard Jones, whose home was destroyed.  "I mean, 20 years of accumulation -- blood, sweat, and tears.  It's gone."

Crews from Polk County Fire Rescue and the Florida Forest Service were going to work overnight Thursday into Friday to monitor the situation. 

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