Courtesy RuthAnn Williams
LAKE WALES (FOX 13) - The mandatory evacuation of the Indian Lake Estates community in east Polk County was lifted Saturday at 4 p.m. following massive wildfires authorities were calling "suspicious."
Officials said the fire burned at least 600 acres on Friday, and was 60 percent contained Saturday afternoon. Extremely dry conditions fueled the fire, which is now being considered suspicious.
All residents of Indian Lake Estates, which is southeast of Lakes Wales, are under a mandatory evacuation. The Red Cross set up a shelter at the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Wales on E. Central Ave. for those displaced by the fires. The evacuation order will stay in effect until at least noon Saturday.
Investigators were looking into the possibility of arsonists setting the fires. Anyone with information about how the fires started was asked to call the anonymous tip line at 1-800-342-5869. A $5,000 reward is being offered for information about the cause of the fires.
Roadways were being monitored for visibility due to smoke, as well as fire dangers. There are no road closures as of Saturday morning.
According to Polk Fire Rescue, several sheds and vehicles have been destroyed in the fire, including the maintenance shed for the Indian Lake Estates community.
There are about 800 homes and 8,000 lots in the evacuation area. Sheriff Grady Judd said some people had refused to leave their homes, in spite of the evacuation order, but said he had a chance to view the fires from the air and urged anyone still able to evacuate to do so.
Sheriff Judd emphasized his office was there only to support local and state fire crews and investigators, and to protect evacuated properties. He asked anyone thinking of coming to see the fire area to stay away.
"The last thing you want to do is arrive in your car and leave in our car," Judd said to anyone wishing to come to the area without reason.
The sheriff thanked local and state firefighters for their efforts to save homes and stop the fire from spreading further.
"They are risking their life tonight to protect the people of this community," Judd said.
Indian Lake Estates has been especially hard hit by fires in recent months. Several large blazes swept through the campgrounds earlier this year, 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.