Overnight Inferno

Traveling along highway 319, a stretch of roadway filled with dirt and gravel. The scenery switching back and forth between luscious trees to the gulf coast aligned with cobblestone and splashing waves.

Resembling a desert for the next 30 miles, only coming across what looked to be abandoned houses and wooded areas. Coming into view is what looks like a beach, a small area of white sand and for miles going across the deep blue ocean sea. The view is mesmerizing and serene.

Along the Forgotten Coast lies a small city named Eastpoint in the state of Florida located in Franklin county. The entrance into the small town had the word Eastpoint painted into a wooden board. At first glance the town looks as if it has been abandoned.

The narrow road created by gravel and dirt leads a passage to a set of trailer and makeshift homes.

According to the United States census, Eastpoint has a population of 2,337 people, 896 households, and 667 families on 7.3 square miles of land. There is only one school in the city containing grades kindergarten through twelfth grade. The median income for an average family in Eastpoint was $29,940.

On June 24th the unexpected happened, many of the residents lives drastically changed. A wildfire broke out and burned at least 900 yards of acres of land and 36 homes. Officials named the Eastpoint fire the Limerock wildfire.

The aftermath of the fire was something you have to see with the natural eye. There is a pathway filled with gravel leading up to a field, but instead of the distinctive green grass and lanky trees it’s something inconceivable to the human eye. The field has grey smoke emitting from the ground into the sky. The grass decaying into black dust with smut scattered across the ground. Cars sitting along fields charred from the wildfire that took place nights before.

But the damage doesn’t end there, walking further to a secluded area, yellow caution tape surrounds rubble and debris. In the middle of the area is wood, trash, and fragments from a once well put together house. Standing right in front of the scene is a man with white t-shirt with traces of black smudge, looking into the distance and thinking of the past. The man who has a look of distraught in his eyes is Billy Dalton, an Eastpoint resident.

Dalton, describes his experience during the wildfires. Dalton states “we were always getting smoke, sparks and things like that. My brother was in the backyard and he came down here screaming ‘help me get my animals.’ I take off to help him get his animals.”

The flames presented to be quicker than his pace as Dalton explains, “by the the time I made it down there to help him with his stuff the fire had jumped the road. By the time we made it back to my house, the fire department wouldn’t let me in my house because all of my belongings were burning.”

To watch as the fiery flames covered his home, demolishing his memories and ruining his happiness is the last thing he expected to occur.

Losing everything almost in the fire, including his personal belongings and even his pet bulldog, it's impossible to imagine what his next step should be in the recovery process, as Dalton expresses “there was stuff in that house that was almost 50 years old, stuff that my wife had when she died, rings, her pictures, her photos, her last clothes, wedding pictures, my children's pictures, my grandkids pictures, clothes and things that you can never replace, stuff you can replace but the memories of them living here can’t be replaced.”

Residents were forced to uproot their entire lives with no money or shelter. They could not wrap their heads around what actions they should take next.

Many residents were living below the poverty line before the wildfires burned their belongings.

Across the neighborhood lies a small man looking at the only place he has ever known since birth and all that remains now is litter from fire.

The results of the fire made Eastpoint resident of fifty-three years Donnie Nichols be thankful  he was put out of harm's way but looked at the rawness of the situation the community was put in as he expresses “the people that live in this community, sure we are low class income people, but these houses to them are just like million dollar homes that's all they got, these people need help, people are bringing stuff in, but the residents have no place to take it, we need some kind of housing, so they can have a home to sleep in at night. It’s devastating people have to see it to believe it, the fire looked like a tornado in the sky and I watched it just lay over and rush through these homes, then ignited and exploded. There was no way the firefighters could contain it.”  

Another resident, William, describes his experience with the wildfire, one minute it was a normal night, the next thing he knows is that he’s rushing to put on his shoes and while  troubled over his wife’s location, he had to think quick on his feet, “my son and a few of his friends are volunteer firefighters, they came down to the store where my wife works, and said your house is fully engulfed in flames. It’s heartbreaking, you work all of your life for things and in one moment they’re gone, there’s nothing you can do, it just breaks your heart.”

William exclaims what comes next for himself and the community, “if we can get it out of the state we need it. I’ve never been through anything like this, I’ve known of people losing their places but this is a first for us, we’ve been through hurricanes, tropical storms and rode them out, but this is the worst thing that has ever happened to us. I know you can rebuild but it takes a while for everything to get back to normal.”

Staying positive for the future, the only thing William has left is the clothes on his back, his wife, and son.

Multiple people walk past the demolished houses, police force carrying brown boxes filled with bread, water and canned goods. Each person has a mission and that is to make sure the residents are cared for. Trailers containing families are lined up, children running in the yard, items hung on the clothing line while reaching out for the donated goods.  The fire was just the tipping scale for the families who were already in jeopardy of losing everything.

The aftermath of the Eastpoint Wildfire. This is the remnants of Billy Dalton’s home.

Cars and police enforcement piled along the dusty road ways, stopping every minute, to see the destruction that was left and to help relieve residents of their troubles. Eastpoint wildfire caused an estimated $1.7 million in damages. The wildfires called for everyone to work together. Neighboring cities like Tallahassee offered to assist Eastpoint with clean up. The city of Tallahassee Underground Utilities and Public Infrastructure sent crews to assist in cleaning up tons of debris caused by the Limerock wildfire. The crews ultimately removed more than 100 tons of rubble, burned appliances, housing construction material, and dozens of cars, trucks and boats.

Franklin county Sheriff A.J smith explains the heartache in which residents are suffering, trying to figure out what the next steps are in providing a stable environment, “a lot of these folks are working in the seafood industry, if they lost a boat or if they lost their home, it’s going to slow them down from going to work or whatever job they have. A lot of folks, if they lost their home, they probably don’t feel like going to work, they are trying to recover, think of where their next meal is going to come from, where they’re going to sleep tonight.”

According to the Florida's forgotten coast website, Franklin county harvests more than 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the nationwide supply. Franklin county produces nearly 10 percent of the hard-shell blue crabs landed in Florida. Many of Eastpoint residents work in the seafood industry. They invested in boats and other materials to enhance their earnings but the fire ruined everything causing them to be without residence and work.

Wildlands services Incorporated. has been conducting controlled burns in the area for many years, without any major damage to the community. Citizens always knew of the prescribed burn but didn’t think much of them. The wildfires started from a prescribed burn that was allegedly extinguished days before. After conducting the prescribed burn, Wildlands services made a final evaluation that all went well. An agency founded by the Florida government investigated the wildfire and its cause. The agency name is Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and is headquartered in Tallahassee, Florida. The agency helps enforces laws that manages and regulates the state's fish and wildlife resources. FWC along with Florida Forest Service investigated the wildfires. Both organizations agreed in a news release to suspend its statewide burn program and conducted an internal investigation to see that all safety policies and procedures were followed during the initial prescribe burn.

The community sensed the underlying cause but didn't have concrete information to expose the truth. Agricultural commissioner Adam Putnam confirms that Wildlands Service incorporated were indeed responsible for the wildfires that broke out.

Many of the victims of the fire were sleeping in what was left of their belongings because they didn’t have many options of places to lay their heads. Eastpoint is a small town that didn’t have many hotels before the fire so trying to find a hotel would cause them more stress than sleeping in what was left of their belongings.

The community banded together to assist residents in their time of need. Boxes of clothes and tons of water were donated, churches assisted in creating a program to help residents find stability, through adopt an Eastpoint resident to help relieve stress for the victims. The compassion and dedication the surrounding counties gave to Eastpoint displayed their true support through this unimaginable situation.

Nine days after the wildfires, the state offered victims $5,000 to help them with recovery.

Nichols states “Franklin county is doing all it can do. It’s a blessing what they’ve done. We need FEMA in here. We need Red Cross. The people need help. “

The community donated so many items they had to stop donations because there was an overflow of certain objects. Officials created a GoFundMe and reached $111,418 of $150,000 goal.

Some of the victims are planning to file lawsuits against Wildlands Services Inc. as a result of the fire. Over six dozen people applied for the $5,000. The money was a partial settlement from Florida division of risk management. Residents had to wait for the checks to arrive and continued to live in their temporary housing accommodations. The victims also had insurance experts to help residence in filing insurance claims after losing majority of the things they once owned.

Smith met with officials to determine how to best allocate state resources.  He was successful with getting trailers for the victims. The state of Florida has purchased 24 surplus travel trailers to help victims of the wildfire. Thirty-days after the wildfire temporary trailers arrived in Eastpoint for victims of the fire.

The wildfires were breaking news in more than Franklin county. The wildfires were covered by a correspondent from CBS to help raise awareness for victims. Reporters from Leon county also covered the wildfires.

The victims endured more than the average human being could bear but they are remaining positive throughout the journey that is ahead of them. They helplessly watched as their hard earnings burned to ashes. There was no death correlated directly to the fire.

The lawsuits are just the beginning to an emotional battle, the community has gone through traumatizing events but throughout the process their bond has become stronger than ever.

View timeline of events here: https://infogram.com/timeline-dark-1h8n6med98vm2xo?live