LAKE WALES (FOX 13) - Evacuation orders in Indian Lake Estates were lifted late Saturday afternoon, allowing residents to come back to their homes after a fire burned 800 acres on Friday.
The fire started Friday afternoon and quickly spread over 600 acres of southeast Polk County, forcing the evacuation of roughly 800 homes in Indian Lake Estates.
Governor Rick Scott announced Saturday that the Trump administration fast-tracked federal funding to help with the cost of responding to the fire. The fire there has grown to 800 acres Saturday but seemed to be slowing thanks to the extra resources being put into the effort.
Fire officials said Friday and Saturday that the nature of where the fires started was “suspicious.” There have been seven wildfires – likely due to arsons – in the past few weeks. Polk Fire Rescue provided information for its anonymous tip line and is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to arson suspects.
The fires remained at 60 percent contained Saturday night. After evacuation orders were lifted at 4 p.m., residents began to come back and were thrilled to discover firefighters' efforts to save their homes were successful.
But there were some very close calls, and there were some vehicles and storage structures lost to the flames.
"I thought the house would be gone and I figured that my big garage in the back would be gone too. But it was untouched," Indian Lake Estates resident Robert Diehl said. “So it was a big relief.”
Diehl said he left his home just as flames came within feet of his house.
FOX 13 spoke with several evacuees who told similar stories of fire seemingly coming from nowhere.
“It was really scary. We were at our friend’s house after school, and we were jumping on the trampoline, and then, the next thing you know, we saw this great big puff of smoke,” Brenna Wilson told us.
On Saturday, hundreds of people and their pets waited at the gates of their neighborhood for authorities to give them the all-clear to return home and survey the damage. Many of them had spent the night in a shelter or sleeping in their cars.
William Conover said the words written on most of their faces: “All I want to do is get home.”
The community maintenance shed for Indian Lake Estates was consumed by fire Friday, but no homes were lost to the surprise of many returning Saturday.
For Diehl, returning home to the smoldering, scorched earth surrounding his home, but seeing his house was spared, was a relief.
State forestry officials and Polk Fire Rescue crews were staying on scene Saturday night to fight any flare-ups.
These are not the first dangerous wildfires to spread across the Indian Lake Estates area this year. Several large blazes swept through nearby campgrounds earlier this year, and then seven new fires broke out in the same area over the last two weeks. Investigators believe many of them were purposefully set, but they do not have much hope of identifying the culprit or culprits.