Walton County

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.

Sprinting.

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.

53 comments

  1. Lita - May 9, 2020 6:11 am

    Dear heaven! God bless the heroes among us. x

    Reply
  2. Marcia MacLean - May 9, 2020 6:20 am

    I’ve been waiting for your comments on the fire. So thankful y’all are okay. I believe it was a combination of true heroes and many prayers.

    Reply
  3. Jerry McCloud - May 9, 2020 6:35 am

    Prayers for all…!!!🙏❤️

    Reply
  4. Dawn A Bratcher - May 9, 2020 6:43 am

    What a heart pounding nightmare! I heard about the fires, but I thought most of it was in wooded areas. I had no idea they were in residential neighborhoods. My heart is broken for those who lost their homes, business, and the wildlife. I can’t believe I am saying this, but, I pray for my humidity!

    Reply
  5. Dawn A Bratcher - May 9, 2020 6:44 am

    MORE HUMIDITY!

    Reply
  6. kathleenivy - May 9, 2020 7:08 am

    Thank God for heros, and for those who tell us about them. I am so sorry for those who lost homes and for the terror each of you must have felt. I am sorry for the loss of wild creatures too. And the trees. Thank you for reporting on this Sean. Blessings to you and your community.

    Reply
  7. Sandi. - May 9, 2020 7:53 am

    Thank God you, Jamie, and both of your dogs are safe, Sean. Blessings to all of those courageous firefighters for their hard work.

    Reply
  8. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - May 9, 2020 9:53 am

    Firemen/Firewomen, Sheriff’s Deputies, linemen, EMTs, helicopter pilots, Forestry Service, volunteer emergency workers – the list goes on, I’m sure, They are all heroes. Thanks, all of you, wherever them are, People like them are the protectors of our whole society.

    Reply
  9. Tiffany Huffer - May 9, 2020 10:04 am

    Very happy to read you and your family (2 &4
    legged) are safe. I thought of you and wasn’t sure “where” you were located but suspected close.
    I sent a message to one of your Facebook pages. You have several. Wasn’t sure if it would get there, and or if you would be checking social media.

    Fire is horrible – I have experienced two in my life. One when I was an infant. My mother scooped my older sister and I up from our cribs and deposited us somewhere else. She doused the flames with the diaper pail. The second shortly after my first wedding. We had “moved” our personal belongings in but we were not yet domicile. Needless to say the neighborhood character “Cool Breeze” thought our porch in the duplex was a good spot to nap. Unfortunately he was smoking when slumber greeted him. We lost almost everything. Wedding gifts that hadn’t been open, our clothes, the little furniture we had. Insurance wasn’t in effect until the following day when we were to “move in”.
    Life lessons.
    I now carry more insurance than necessary and check every candle, burner, etc. to be sure extinguished.
    Blink of an eye, from quarantine shelter in place to evacuate shelter in place.
    Thankful you are safe and back in home to continue quarantine.
    Blessings,
    Tiffany

    Reply
  10. J scott - May 9, 2020 10:44 am

    Thank God you and yours are ok. I have been worried sick about this! We spend a lot of time in that area, this is just too sad. Love to all and prayers from Georgia!

    Reply
  11. Jean - May 9, 2020 10:52 am

    We heard about the fire but I never put you in the same place. Thanks be to God and the brave firemen! Sad to think how many little animals were burned and people losing their homes. Love and prayers!

    Reply
  12. Leia Lona - May 9, 2020 11:14 am

    I was hoping to hear your story about this and that you and your loved ones are safe. I have experienced these fires like yours and know how heartstopping they are. Firefighter are amazing.

    Reply
  13. Robert M Brenner - May 9, 2020 11:18 am

    Nobody should have to experience this tragedy of fire. Thanks to everyday hero’s many are safe. For those who lost all their possessions, God Bless You and Keep You❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

    Reply
  14. Betty Nix - May 9, 2020 11:29 am

    Thankful you are all safe and were spared from losing your home. Disasters are devastating but bring out the best in our rescue heroes. Thanks for letting us know you are okay ❤️

    Reply
  15. Pat Bice - May 9, 2020 11:48 am

    So sorry that so many lost their homes! So thankful that no one died and so grateful for the brave people who brought it under control. Glad it was stopped before it came to your home. Blessings!!

    Reply
  16. Cathi Russell - May 9, 2020 11:49 am

    You & yours have been in my prayers & I’m glad to read all’s well. Fire fighters are amazing creatures and it sounds as you had the best. ❤❤❤❤❤

    Reply
  17. Jen - May 9, 2020 11:56 am

    So thankful you all were safe. Amazing work by all agencies involved, true hero’s.

    Reply
  18. Patsy Cosson White-Spunner - May 9, 2020 12:00 pm

    Sean, after reading your article, I can’t stop crying. You see, my nephew was one of many of those heroes you write about. His name is Michael Adkinson, your sheriff. I thank God that everyone responded quickly enough that no one lost their life. Thank you for your heartfelt words. You truly are a really good guy. God bless.

    Reply
  19. C.F. David - May 9, 2020 12:18 pm

    Had been worried about you two, and your home.
    Glad to know you are safe.

    Reply
  20. Farris - May 9, 2020 12:33 pm

    Sean , we also had to evacuate ( myself , special needs daughter and dog ) will live off Allen Loop and Thompson , the fire came within 1\2 mile of us !!! It was a harrowing experience , but thankfully all ok at our home and neighborhood ! I’m so appreciative and thankful for those brave men and women running towards the fire as we are all fleeing ! When I saw the total devastation yesterday once Thompson Rd. was open I was so humbled , it just brought tears to my eyes , and then to see the fire break cut all around our neighborhood and how close the fire came to us I realized the scope of what these firefighters did , it was truly a miracle !

    Reply
  21. Jan - May 9, 2020 12:54 pm

    So very sorry for the loss of home, property, dreams and treasures. So thankful and happy that lives were spared and so many homes saved. We live our lives surrounded by heroes who serve and protect us every day. I appreciate each one and offer my thanks along with yours Sean. Thank you for reminding me. So glad that you, your family and home are safe.

    Reply
  22. Berryman Mary M - May 9, 2020 1:20 pm

    Dear Sean, I have tears in my eyes as I write this because I have been so worried about you and Jamie and the dogs and your house. I had heard about the fire and I knew it was in the vicinity of your home and there was no writing from you yesterday………..I’m so grateful you are all okay and grateful for the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for us everyday in so many ways.

    Reply
  23. Mary Alice Beachy - May 9, 2020 1:40 pm

    Thank God for those who are called first responders, even though the first are usually the last to leave. You had people praying for you and your neighbors. I sure did.

    Reply
  24. Kelley Hinsley - May 9, 2020 1:41 pm

    Well done. I have a great story of early DeFuniak Springs that involves some very distant cousins I never knew.
    I may try to email you info so you can determine if you want to research to see if it is part of local history.
    Kelley Hinsley

    Reply
  25. Joan Jannaman - May 9, 2020 1:56 pm

    Thank you for this article letting your readers know that you all are safe! We were praying for you and everyone there. My heart goes out to all that lost their homes but thankful and amazed that no one lost their lives! I love that you wrote about how the emergency workers did their jobs so well that this was possible…amazing….to see them running toward the danger is an unforgettable.

    Reply
  26. flkatmom - May 9, 2020 1:58 pm

    May God Bless all those that worked to stop the fire. So glad y’all are safe.
    ❤ from Orlando

    Reply
  27. BJean - May 9, 2020 2:05 pm

    Thank you for this. Sounds like those people you described were a miracle of God themselves😊

    Reply
  28. Linda Black-Jones - May 9, 2020 2:48 pm

    True heros don’t wear capes.
    Mr. Rogers was right. Look for the helpers. Always look for the helpers.

    Reply
  29. Terrie - May 9, 2020 3:00 pm

    I love you! I am glad your home and community are safe. I have been following this story as your part of the world is a second home to me. When I read your stories I feel connected as I recognize places, restaurants, and good people. Thankyou to all the “locals”, that take care of their own , and take care of us “tourists “ when we come to share in your paradise.

    Reply
  30. Ann Fyfe - May 9, 2020 3:05 pm

    So glad y’all are okay. We in Bay County were praying for those in harm’s way and for the emergency responders fighting the fires. My heart breaks for those who lost their homes. Thank you, Sean, for your sweet humor in your writings. My husband and I read your posts every day. We loved seeing you in person at Mosley High School some years ago. Be safe and pet Thelma Lou for me!

    Reply
  31. Amy Ray - May 9, 2020 3:26 pm

    Walton County is rooted in my soul & DNA – my family settled on the banks of the Choctawhatchee Bay 5 generations ago. I’m so proud to be able to call Walton County folks “family” in one sense or another. Thanks for covering these amazing men and women and I’m so glad to know ya’ll and the pups are all ok 🙂

    Reply
  32. Christina - May 9, 2020 3:45 pm

    How scary it must have been! Thank God you guys are safe, thank God for all those who made it possible.

    Reply
  33. Mackie ah - May 9, 2020 3:47 pm

    I didn’t let out my breath till I read that they saved your lives & your house. Thanks be to God.

    Reply
  34. Mackie H. Jordan - May 9, 2020 3:49 pm

    I didn’t let out my breath till seeing you & yours were safe. Thanks be to God.

    Reply
  35. Laurie Pallotta - May 9, 2020 4:24 pm

    I read this whole thing practically holding my breath. I mean, clearly you and Jamie were physically fine, but your home, your neighbors, their homes … I was so thankful to get to the end, let my breath out, and also thank God for your first responders. Things can always be replaced, but I’m thankful you and your neighbors all survived. Please let us know if you or they have any needs at all. I know there are many of us who will not hesitate to help.
    — Laurie, devoted reader from Huntsville, Alabama

    Reply
  36. Linda Moon - May 9, 2020 4:43 pm

    I never knew ’til now that autobiographies could be told by Land Rovers. Someone I know and love has a bio from a Corvette to a Junky Jeep. He also has a fence like yours, Sean. And….I’m not making this up…. he has often been “recognized” by strangers as President Carter because of the resemblance. But I digress. Thank you, Sean, for thanking the firefighters! They’re now with the Health-Care Heroes! They also remind me of the biographical movie ONLY THE BRAVE, about fire-fighting Hotshots. I’m glad you and Jamie and the dogs made it out safely with the the quilt, photos, and other things…but especially the LIVES!!

    Reply
  37. Wadena Colbert - May 9, 2020 5:12 pm

    Thanking God you and yours are safe. Don’t know what I’d do without your daily posts.

    Reply
  38. Tracy Zeigler - May 9, 2020 5:20 pm

    Oh my goodness, so thankful you are all ok and yes a big thank you to all you kept it contained. I can’t even imagine how scary that must have been. Prayers for you all!!!

    Reply
  39. fleming Straughan - May 9, 2020 6:44 pm

    You bring Joy and hope into chaos and depression
    Thank you for your gift and sharing

    Reply
  40. Celia Harbin - May 9, 2020 7:42 pm

    Praise The Lord no lives were lost and you & Jamie are ok. That was a glowing tribute you wrote to all the first responders in Walton county. God bless you and keep you safe.

    Reply
  41. Gloria - May 9, 2020 8:08 pm

    Thankful for your safety and others, sadness for the loss of homes in the path of flames, and pride for the brave firemen, first responders and law enforcement. I keep praying for rains to soak the earth of our counties that have such a high index of rain. They are tinder boxes and God forbid that lightning or man should cause them to flame as did the fire did close to y’all

    Reply
  42. Gloria - May 9, 2020 8:10 pm

    That should have said such a LOW index of rain. Hard to see the words being typed through the tears.

    Reply
  43. chris nischan - May 9, 2020 9:16 pm

    So happy to hear y’all are going to be ok…I have found many people are selfless and brave at times like these. WAY TO GO!!!

    Reply
  44. Jackie Niedergerke - May 9, 2020 9:48 pm

    This is so beautifully written and you have captured all of our feelings, thank you. Just thank you to everyone

    Reply
  45. Ann - May 9, 2020 11:49 pm

    True heroes are a blessing…and they are!👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻❤️

    Reply
  46. Patricia D Gibson - May 10, 2020 1:16 am

    I have been praying for your guys. So glad all are ok!!

    Reply
  47. Nancy M - May 10, 2020 2:06 am

    I’m so thankful that your and your neighbors’ homes and lives were spared! Thank you for the report. I’d heard about on the news and didn’t know how close it was to you.

    Reply
  48. RobinGeorge - May 10, 2020 1:06 pm

    So thankful human lives were spared. It was a horrible night with the moon shining so bright in beautiful Walton County.
    Friends, Tammie and Joel, evacuated but safe, but some friends lost everything on Thompson Drive sadly. But they are safe and can rebuild.

    Thankful for all the firefighters, sheriffs, linemen, forestry workers and all the Hero’s of the last few days. Let’s go back to our homes and cherish our loved ones.

    Reply
  49. Diane - May 11, 2020 11:42 am

    Glad everyone is safe! Prayers to all!

    Reply
  50. Patricia A Schmaltz - May 11, 2020 12:34 pm

    Your fire freaked me out. First time I cried since the whole COVID-era started. Swamp Fires? Are the locusts not far behind? SO GLAD you and the entire Walton Co are okay..or are going to be okay. (I’m your poor FWB neighbor.)
    Stay healthy.
    Patricia

    Reply
  51. Cindy Simmons - May 11, 2020 8:19 pm

    We had the same thing in Harrison County, bordering Long Beach, a church was saved by about 4 feet from fire getting in, yes it was a miracle and I do thank God, but I also thank the Firemen and the Chief who worked for 3 days putting out this fire and hot spots, he was determined to save structures and with his crew of great guys did.

    Reply
  52. Chasity Davis Ritter - May 12, 2020 8:23 pm

    Glad you and your neighbors are ok.

    Reply
  53. Denise DeVries - May 15, 2020 11:46 pm

    I believe in heroes and angels!Without them we wouldn’t win . Thank you heroes and angels of Walton County.

    Reply

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