There is something crueler about a fire than other brutal attackers. Like Storm, it boots you out of your home, but that sidekick is nicer about it. It only knocks loudly on your door, gives you a little time to gather up stuff before it shuts the door behind you and sends you on your way. Then it just waters everything left behind, soaking some of it, ruining a lot of it, too lazy not to leave some of it intact. It hangs around for a while and then quietly lumbers off.
Fire is meaner and greedier. It rousts you from a nap, doesn’t give you time to even put on shoes, much less grab your cellphone or wallet, and with the help of its running buddy Wind, bears right on you, close up and impersonal, not caring who you are, not even wasting its breath to chase you. It takes it all, doesn’t leave you a thing, even kills your dog, just to spite you. Its fury is raucous and unruly, like a drunk, so it spares some people, misses them altogether. But give Fire enough time, and it will get around to you too.
That is until it gets put out, that’s what fire departments are for. Usually it’s just one, maybe with help from another two or three. The Lime Rock Fire drew every fire department in Franklin County, plus Sumatra and Hosford in Liberty County, and Port St. Joe, St. Joe Beach and Highland View in Gulf County. They didn’t leave until Eastpoint Fire Chief George Pruett said it was OK to go, early Monday morning.
As the Florida Forestry Service dug its ditches, to clear away the fuel that feeds Fire’s gluttony, two key departments sprang into action, first. The Eastpoint firefighters made critical decisions, with minimal time before they had to choose which houses to attack and which to pass by. Like triaging patients in a war zone, ignore the dead and try to save the living.
Sheriff’s deputies had to do something that ordinarily the law forbids them to do, ordering innocent, law-abiding people to leave immediately, to cease and desist from messing with such controlled substances as water from a garden hose they wanted to spray on the approaching menace. Everybody knew what would happen if the fire struck a mobile home with people in it. They had no choice but to be the bully, to save people from a worse one heading their way.
There is never a bad time to praise someone, like the first responders, and the many firefighters who backed them up, and backed Fire off before sending it to where the sun never shines, and the electrical crews and the volunteers who have stepped in to help defeat the forces of darkness, chaos and despair, and give hope to those reacting to losing everything they have, except life and love. The Lime Rock Fire has been engraved into the county’s wood as a catastrophic event of lasting proportions, wiping out the wealth of a couple of dirt roads and two nice paved ones, a single neighborhood whose dogged, semi-agricultural, at sea working when not out hunting, rugged life defines Old Florida about as best as any place ever will.
Still, this is not the time to sing the praises of these dedicated men and women, those who stepped into the breach, between where fire fully blooms into a lethal, twisting gas, to where it lights on your property as softly as a floating ember, and catches. Either way, there’s no stopping it without coordinated warfare, whether it be to save a life or a property, like we saw happen.
Actually, there is a way to praise them for what they did, and we can do that today, by continuing their work where they left off. In time the blistered lots will be cleared, the debris removed, the tragedy accepted. But that will not be the end of it. A place to live, for all those displaced, will be found, provided if necessary, and must be. Food and clothing and funds will come, as they have been from day one, like a garden hose full of help splashed on hot skin on a sweltering day.
The future, too, will contain an answer to whether the Lime Rock Fire could have been prevented, and how. In a rural county where so much land is still blessedly undeveloped, where you can hunt for something other than a parking space, fires like this must be understood and masterfully handled. What is controlled, exactly, in an intentional burn? Does lightning strike twice? What happens after you blow out the candle before you fall asleep? There are lots of questions, and answers must be fearless and forthcoming.
Following a burn, hikers follow the first green shoots of new life as they sprout and bud among the blackened woods. It is a process far, far slower than Fire, but fresher and kinder than the raging ogre that burst in howling from off a tree, and then died in the face of a determined adversary. We’re seeing those shoots in the uplift of an eager community, in the generosity of neighbors, in a willingness to help and be helped.
And we’re seeing the shoots even in the most unlikely place, the eyes of a man, woman and child whose guts have just been pummeled, whose resources are all but completely gone, whose hope has been beaten into the size of a grain of a sand on the beach.
In these spirits are shoots already beginning to grow, in the soil of a living promise they have made to themselves, that they will replenish and restore the blackened landscape that has torn across their lives. These are the shoots we must nurture first, with care and patience. In time their lives will bloom again, and the woods they knew will grow back, and the community will be richer for it.