There is a faint smell of smoke in Walton County this morning. It’s a little hazy, but not too bad. I can see charred pine trees and an ocean of black soot.
Walton County is my home. My first kiss was on the shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay. My first beer was in a camper outside DeFuniak. I met my wife here.
Ours is a diverse county. You’ve got your ultra-elite, who live on the beach, drive Land Rover Autobiographies, and have New England accents. And you have guys like me, with two rusted fishing boats in his front yard, and a fence that has needed replacing since the Carter administration.
A few nights ago, a Walton County Sheriff’s Department cruiser sped down our street, past my rusty boats and old fence, and into my driveway. Blue lights blaring. Kicking up gravel. A deputy in a county uniform beat on our door.
“Fire,” was the deputy’s first word. The officer pointed into the distance. “It’s coming this way.”
I looked at the horizon. Just above the treeline was a cloud of brown smoke rising into the sky like something from a bad horror movie.
“Hurry,” the deputy said.
My wife and I spent the next 10 minutes running through our house, shouting things to each other.
“WHAT ABOUT OUR WEDDING PHOTOS?!”
“WHERE’S MY COMPUTER?!”
“DID YOU SHUT THE GARAGE?!”
“Hurry,” the deputy pointed out.
I’ve never been given 10 minutes to choose my most essential possessions. It was a bizarre scenario. I mean, what DO you choose?
Here’s what we chose: Wedding photos, four homegrown tomatoes, my favorite hat, one change of clothes, two books, a mounted fish, vitamins, a block of cheese, a white-noise machine, my mother’s handmade quilt, beer.
We crammed our dogs and belongings into our vehicles. I was barefoot. My wife wore pajamas.
Walton County uniforms were barricading our streets. No cars were coming in. Traffic was at a standstill. The cloud behind us was getting bigger.
Sirens were whining. People were standing along the sides of the highway. Rubberneckers had pulled vehicles over to gawk. Emergency vehicles sped past us. A chopper pulsed overhead. There was the sound of a baby crying in the distance. It was a nightmare.
But the worst was yet to come. That was just the dress rehearsal. That fire barely made the local news. A few days later, a different fire broke out, and this one made national news.
I will never forget it. One minute the sky was blue and birds were singing. The next minute, the air was filled with the smell of burnt pines and a smoke-cloud the size of Cincinnati.
There were flames taller than skyscrapers. Sounds of trees cracking. I saw Walton County firefighters uniforms sprinting directly into this Armageddon.
The longleafs were lit up like birthday candles, and they made the air smell sour. It was the same scenario as a few nights before. The whole world was filled with sirens again. Speeding vehicles. Loud engines. Screaming.
Then came more heavy equipment, bulldozers, electrical trucks, tractors, diesels revving, people shouting.
It was getting close to dusk, the fire was only getting bigger. Later that evening, I stood with my wife at the end of our street, watching a billow of smoke cover the moon.
People in the neighborhood had gathered, biting fingernails, calling loved ones on cellphones. We are the same people who have been social-distancing and quarantining for 50-some-odd days. The same people who wear surgical masks just to check the mail. And now this.
“What do we do?” one neighbor shouted to another.
“I don’t know,” said another.
“It’s getting closer.”
“I heard it’s spread to Thompson Road.”
“Oh my God, my mother lives near Thompson.”
You never know when the world is going to fall apart, I guess. Sometimes you wander through life feeling protected from bad fortune, but the truth is ugly things happen every day. This was one of those things.
Even so, somehow, even though the whole world was on fire, the worst didn’t happen. There were too many brave people standing in its way.
The South Walton County Fire District, the Florida Forestry Service, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, the electrical crews from CHELCO cooperative, they all participated in one of the largest choreographed wildfire operations our little county has ever seen. They saved our homes and our lives.
The forestry service deployed 40 of its best men, 15 tractor plow units, and two dozer strike teams. The Sheriff’s deputies worked around the clock, living on nothing but adrenaline and coffee. Emergency workers sheltered refugees in the local high school. Electrical linemen pulled all-nighters. And the firefighters were nothing short of heroic.
The wildfire consumed 575 acres. There were 33 houses burned to the ground. It consumed cars, telephone poles, woodland animals, and birds. But nobody died.
Last night, I heard a journalist on the national news say it was a miracle the fire was contained and that no lives were lost. But he was wrong. This was more than just a miracle. This was the handiwork of brave men and women who wear Walton County uniforms.
And I just wanted to thank them.