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, June 24, 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.
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.
“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 and his wife Paula fled their property at 605 Ridge Road, and soon learned everything was destroyed.
“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.
Joe and Becky Banks knew, too, 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 that 132 people were 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.
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.”
Smith set up a GoFundMe account that raised a couple hundred thousand dollars, which soon went to purchase modular homes. In addition, the county secured a couple million dollars in state funds for affordable housing, and as we enter 2019, the rebuilding process is just beginning.
Franklin’s Promise Coalition also took care of a couple hundred thousand dollars in donations, of cash and needed items, and while they were trusty guardians of the money, they couldn’t strike a deal with the county, and had to leave as that support function for the emergency management office.
Capital Area Community Action replaced them in that role, and the work continues, to restore that neighborhood to health.