Right now they’re calling it the Lime Rock Road fire, but in time it will become known simply as “The Fire” and everyone in Franklin County will know where they were when it happened.
Especially those who fled for their lives Sunday evening, sometime around 6 p.m. when it became clear that a fire in Tate’s Hell State Forest off in the distance, smoldering for about two hours, was now about to lash out at Bear Creek, Ridge Road and Wilderness Road.
Apalachicola firefighter Troy Segree said the noise was like a loud rumble as it neared. He had to keep on his sunglasses because of the ash and smoke burning his eyes.
Christy Russell had to convince her boyfriend, Ryan Williamson, who at first thought it was "a little house fire down the road," to flee.
"Everybody was going down the road," he said, at the Red Pirate Sunday.
"Panicking," she added.
Williamson didn't even grab his wallet and Russell took only one thing as she left. "The first thing I grabbed was my baby's blanket," she said. "All I could see was orange. I felt the heat."
Among those who stopped by Sunday was Cody Putnal, who lives at 677 Wilderness Road. He was hearing their property was spared the flames and theorized this was because about six months ago, they had cleared out much of the property to make room for four horses they brought in.
Neighbors made sure to let the horses loose as the flames neared. "The fire just missed the horses," said Putnal.
Others quickly packed goats, chickens and ducks into a Jeep to move them out safely. Neighbors ran through yards, letting any dogs they saw free.
Some were not so fortunate.
“Want to see my dog?” said one Ridge Road woman, dealing with the grief she felt Monday for having been away that afternoon, her dog inside her mobile home.
She got up from her seat, in the ash and dirt that was once her house, and walked over to under a blackened tree and picked up a green pail, and plopped it down like you would a squirming puppy.
Inside were the charred, indistinguishable remains of her pet Labrador retriever.
Putnal said he heard explosions, and went to see what was happening. Other recall hearing what were likely propane tanks, shotgun shells, gasoline cans, even vehicles, exploding.
Because of the evacuation, and the urgent cries of neighbors, casualties were limited to the death of one man who had run out to help. He passed away from what appeared to be a heart attack, after receiving CPR near the Eastpoint Cemetery.
"We called out every deputy we had," said Smith. "It was all hands on deck."
Eastpoint Fire Chief George Pruett said deputies’ quick evacuation helped save lives. “Had they not been there, there would have been a massive loss of life, there’s no doubt in my mind.
“We were bypassing houses that were completely burning,” he said. “We were trying to save the ones we could save.”
Fire departments from throughout the county, as well as Liberty, Wakulla and Gulf counties, responded, as deputies rushed to evacuate the area.
The sheriff said there was at least one traffic mishap in the rush and confusion, and that deputies made one arrest, although it was not related to looting. In one case deputies had to free a woman and her children from inside a car that had run off a dirt road, confused by the smoke.
Terry Thompson, who is wheelchair bound, had to be wheeled to safety by Penny Rotella. “It was just black smoke,” said Thompson. ”Smoke, smoke, smoke.”
With Dominic Rotella packing his pick-up full of as many kids as he could, they drove first to the section of the causeway near Cat Point, and waited for word.
“It wasn’t no joke, The ashes were falling on my head,” said Amanda Nowling, who scooped up her two boys, Rodney, 8, and Tyler, 5, and fled from their home on 608 Ridge Road, without time to grab even her cell phone.
“There was nothing but smoke. You could see glowing in the sky,” she said. “Mama wouldn’t leave because of the dogs.”
Matt Polous had ran next door to the house of Sean Boatwright, to make sure he was awake and would get out in time. When Polous’ wife Paula pulled up, returning from her job on St. George Island, he yelled for her to leave. She never entered the home; he left without even his billfold.
Polous knew Sunday his property at 605 Ridge Road had been destroyed, one of the first to be swallowed in the blaze.
"My whole backyard was fill of boats," he said, at least 14 different ones, from a 55-foot grouper boat down to a 17-footer. One of those boats belonged to brother-in-law, Jeff Page, who planned to oyster Monday morning, but instead rushed from their home in Crawfordville to the scene, noticing the smoke as soon as they passed St. James Bay.
Polous said he lost a sawmill, several trucks, a load of deadhead cypress, and probably a lot more, as he and his wife were among the 250 who registered Sunday at the church with the Red Cross, not knowing what they would come back to Monday. Joe and Becky Banks knew, though, it was bad. They were among the 51 people who got a night’s sleep Sunday at the Eastpoint Church of God.
Emergency Management Director Pam Brownell said preliminary estimates are the 132 of them were now fully displaced, their homes among the three dozen totally consumed by the flames, not including those who stayed on campers or other buildings on site.
The number of boats and vehicles gutted by the flames is as yet unknown.
Brownell said Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper estimated the combined loss of property alone to be at least $800,000.
Gov. Rick Scott, who visited the scene Monday morning, promised to bring those affected the help they need.
“Our heart goes out to all the families impacted by this. We’re going to see what resources there are at the state and federal level,” he said. “Franklin County is a county that shows up and takes care of its citizens and we’re going to do the same thing as well.”
Whether the governor planned to issue a disaster declaration was not clear as of Wednesday afternoon.
A written request to the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) did not address a disaster declaration, nor provide any indication what a decision one way or another on this matter would mean.
“FDEM is working closely with state and local partners to address unmet needs and monitor the situation resulting from the Eastpoint wildfire as it transitions from a response effort to a recovery process,” they wrote.
“Throughout the event, the FDEM meteorology team has worked closely with the Florida Forest Service meteorology team to monitor wind speed, trajectory and determine the fire’s potential path and threat to structures and population,” their email continued. “FDEM staff in the State Watch Office have coordinated with the Franklin County Warning Point to determine possible impacts to ground transportation.
The email said FDEM’s Region 1 coordinator kept in contact with county emergency management throughout the event, and FDEM worked with the county to identify unmet needs and affected structures as the county developed its Preliminary Damage Assessment.