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Victims of Eastpoint fire still picking up 1 year later

June 30, 2019
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In this Wednesday, June 19, 2019, photo, Stephanie Johns recalls the moment she realized that the Lime Rock Fire was headed straight for her Eastpoint, Fla., home on June 24, 2018. One year later, she, her two kids and husband are still living in a camper on their land. With not much room inside the camper, her kids spend their summer days playing outside with friends. (Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

EASTPOINT, Fla. (AP) — One year after the Limerock wildfire incinerated three-dozen homes just blocks away from Franklin County’s famed seafood houses, Luther Glass and many of his neighbors are still struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together.

But many of those pieces are gone forever, reduced to ash and melted aluminum. The people along Ridge, Wilderness and Bear Creek roads lost everything in the wildfire. Their homes, their cars, their hunting rifles, their deep freezers for meat. Even their boats, which they rely on to make a living off the Gulf.

They’re grateful for the massive outpouring of help that came into the small town after the fire, a prescribed burn that raged out of control on June 24, 2018. But they’re frustrated with the pace of relief efforts and the legal battle against the state and a vendor blamed for the wildfire. Many of the fire victims had no insurance and are still living in cramped FEMA campers, some of which are coming apart at the seams.

Glass, a fisherman and shrimper, and his three boys, who range in age from 3 to 12, lived happily before the fire with his dad and a grandmother in a wooden, wheelchair-accessible house on Ridge Road. They had a fifth wheel camper and a few other vehicles, boats and motors, a swimming pool with a deck, a large work shed, numerous guns, seven hound dogs and two pigs.

But the wildfire turned all that to misshapen hulks and cinder. Only two of his dogs came back. The family decided to stay on their land, living at first in a small camper donated by a friend before moving into a slightly bigger one from FEMA that’s showing signs of major wear.

“We lost everything,” Glass said. “It gets aggravating knowing you had everything we worked pretty much our whole lives for just destroyed. We finally scraped back up and got what it takes to live. But it still ain’t what I had.”

Their makeshift home, a 30-some-odd-foot camper trailer, barely contains his young family. There’s a tiny kitchenette with a refrigerator too small to hold much food. His kids sleep on bunk beds in the back or on small seat cushions around a dining table. The trim around doorways is peeling off, and one of the few cabinets inside has fallen apart. There is precious little privacy.

Glass’ dad, who was in a nursing home for serious health problems, recently returned to his property only to find his wheelchair couldn’t fit through the camper door. He’ll be able to come home some day — once government funded permanent housing arrives — but Glass doesn’t know when.

“It’s been a year later,” he said. “We had $200,000 worth of property that got burned. And we’re living in a $20,000 camper that’s so cheaply made that the walls are coming apart. It’s just ridiculous. They’re trying to help some. But I don’t think it’s enough.”

Glass, who used to have steady work at Harry A’s on St. George Island, goes out on a shrimp boat when he can, splitting modest proceeds between the boat captain and the owners. The island restaurant closed after Hurricane Michael hit Oct. 10, though it’s expected to reopen.

He got little money from unemployment. The family was just approved for food stamps and Medicaid, but their cards haven’t arrived yet. Outside the camper, trash is piling up because they can’t afford collection service.

The charred landscape and a partially melted Nissan Altima in the front yard are but a few of the reminders of what happened and all they lost.

“It’s been tough,” Glass said. “It’s been really tough.”

Joe Banks didn’t take his usual nap the day of the wildfire, which happened a year ago Monday. He figured a bad thunderstorm was on the way after the sky turned black. But when he stepped outside his mobile home on Ridge Road, he found himself in the middle of an approaching inferno.

His wife of 37 years, Becky Banks, a cafeteria worker at Franklin County School, wasn’t home. He jumped in his car and made it to the end of the driveway. But he couldn’t get out because the streets were clogged with cars and people trying to get back home or escape.

“I was sitting there and embers the size of my fist were hitting my car,” he said. “I couldn’t see five feet in front of me. I was scared. I’ve been through tornadoes and hurricanes, but a fire — I couldn’t imagine people getting caught in a fire. You can never imagine anything like that.”

He finally managed to get out. But when he and his wife returned more than a week later, they found nothing left. Where their mobile home stood, there were globs of melted aluminum. A fireproof box full of family photos and important documents was destroyed. Her jewelry and other treasured possessions simply vanished.

“It’s just an empty thing in my heart,” Becky Banks said. “My father’s pictures. I can’t have them no more.”

The wildfire was caused by a prescribed burn that was ignited June 18 and thought to have been extinguished later that day by a state contractor, Wildlands Service, Inc., of Tallahassee. However, the fire continued to smolder in a state wildlife management area, according to a report released last August by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The report concluded that Wildlands Service was responsible for the wildfire. It also confirmed that high winds from a thunderstorm caused the fire to spread from a contained area of six or seven acres to consume more than 800 acres. The wildfire destroyed 27 homes and heavily damaged nine others. It also ruined 62 out-buildings and more than 125 cars, trucks, vessels and campers.

The Bankses, whose son Bill Banks, a volunteer firefighter, helped put out the wildfire, said they worry another prescribed burn will go awry one day. It’s a fear that keeps them up at night.

“You get up every day thinking, ‘What’s going to happen today?’ ” Joe Banks said. “They’re still going to do controlled burns — there’s nothing you can do about it. You just hope and pray that if they do it again, somebody’s actually there watching.”

The couple, “adopted” by a local church and radio station after the fire, is living in a donated mobile structure that they say was designed to be an office, not a home. Becky Banks said they’re applying for a new mobile home but will be at the bottom of the list because of the one they already accepted.

“We’re struggling,” she said. “Everybody is. And some of these people are still waiting on homes. I’m just hoping and praying they get one.”

In the days and weeks after the wildfire, churches, nonprofits, local businesses and the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office led efforts to feed, clothe and house at least 125 people who lost their homes. The FEMA camper trailers arrived through a partnership between local, state and federal governments and the Capital Area Community Action Agency.

Last October, then-Gov. Rick Scott announced that the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity would provide $2.6 million in federal grant funds on top of an existing $700,000 grant to Franklin County. The money was earmarked for housing replacements and repairs. But many of the residents are still waiting for their new homes to arrive.

Sheriff A.J. Smith, through a GoFundMe effort, bought seven mobile homes designed to withstand hurricane winds, which he said were delivered months ago. The Community Action Agency also acquired several mobile homes, all but one of which is on the ground, said Tim Center, CEO of the nonprofit.

“The great news is that within a year, we have begun getting permanent housing to the residents that were displaced by the wildfire,” Center said. “The tough part has been it’s taken a year to get permanent housing to people who have had to live in a camper trailer, which is not designed to be a permanent house. So we’ve been fortunate to work with Franklin County to try to make the primary resident as whole as possible in a meaningful way.”

Center expects all of the fire victims to have permanent housing by the end of the summer. He noted that social service agencies and the government can only do so much to help.

“We’ve done a lot,” he said. “But there’s no way we’re ever going to be able to do everything. Permanent relief will have to come through the courts. And that’s not our role.”

Glass said he’s been approved for a $70,000 house. He expects to get a modular home, like one that went up down the street, but he’s not sure and doesn’t know when it might arrive. And while the homes donated through the Sheriff’s Office and the Community Action Agency were given free and clear to residents, he said the homes purchased with federal dollars come with strings attached.

“It’s a lot of paperwork we’ve got to go through,” he said. “And (the county) gets to take control of my property for 10 years — which I don’t care for that none. If I live in the house for 10 years, it will be paid off, we won’t have to pay for the house. That’s the way it was explained to me.”

Stephanie Johns, who lost her home in the fire, has been trying to maintain a normal life inside one of the FEMA campers with her husband, their two kids and small dogs. But she said it’s nearly impossible in such confined quarters.

“Everybody has a different story, but it’s more or less the same,” she said. “We all just want a house.”

Glass and many of the fire victims have filed nearly a dozen lawsuits against Wildlands Service, and more are expected. Some of them also have notified state agencies of their intent to sue, said Doug Lyons, a Tallahassee attorney representing more than 50 people. He said all told, there are about 120 plaintiffs, with nearly a dozen lawyers handling their cases.

Lyons said that while Wildlands Service had a $5 million insurance policy, only $1 million of it is available to pay out claims to the fire victims. Court-ordered mediation could happen as soon as August, opening the door to a possible settlement.

Cecil Davis, a Tallahassee attorney representing Wildlands Service, said he could not comment because of the ongoing litigation.

“We all have lawsuits, but it feels like they’re dragging it out,” Johns said. ”(They) came out here and burned stuff and took people’s homes and took people’s animals. To me, that right there is negligence because everyone in the world knows they set that fire and then went back to Tallahassee. People could really use that money. Every one of us could.”

But Johns said the promise of a new home, which could arrive any day, gives her hope. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, there are other encouraging signs. Friends of Eastpoint, the Sheriff’s Office and volunteers teamed up to build Hope Park on Bear Creek Road, on the site of dilapidated property that used to be known for drug activity.

The park, which will double as a Sheriff’s Office substation, includes a playground, a pond, planned basketball court and a small building for meeting space. Sheriff Smith said it won’t be manned around the clock, but deputies will be able to stop in, interact with the residents and fill out paperwork. A ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the wildfire will be held 3 p.m. Sunday at the park.

“I think the folks in that area are very resilient, and they have done a good job of recovering,” Smith said. “It’s an ongoing process. I’m proud of how everyone’s done as a community.”

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Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, http://www.tdo.com

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