The fire is 70 percent contained as of Thursday evening, according to the latest information from the Florida Forestry Service. About 575 acres have burned since Wednesday evening and 33 structures were destroyed.
The rumors are not true.
Owner Oliver Petit said his restaurant Louis Louis on Mussett Bayou Road was not damaged in the South Walton fire. Many community members were concerned, because his other iconic bar and restaurant, The Red Bar, is being rebuilt after it burned down in February of 2019.
“It’s OK; we dodged a bullet,” Petit said. “It was raging across the street from it. The wind was blowing southeast. It was so close, so scary, so frightening.”
Petit’s aunt’s home on Thompson Road burned down. The home of his father, who lives on Laurel Road, perpendicular to Mussett Bayou Road, and the home of one of the Restaurant’s longtime bartenders were spared.
Having a fire so close to another one of Petit’s restaurants was terrifying, he said.
“From Louis Louis, if you can imagine the shopping center where (VKI Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar) is and the different shops there, the flames were hovering east of that,” Petit said. “You could clearly see it. It was 600 feet from us.”
Petit was bewildered and frightened, he said.
“I actually stood there with my water hose in hand, naively ready to use in case it got to the front door,” Petit said. “The fire department was already there, working diligently. It was incredible.”
SANTA ROSA BEACH — A man burning “illegal materials” on a day when no burn permits were being issued ignited a Walton County fire that destroyed 33 homes and did substantial damage to a handful more.
The Florida Department of Agriculture is investigating and charges are pending, according to Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson.
The fire began on Musset Bayou Road about 5 p.m., Wednesday and spread quickly. After it jumped U.S. Highway 98 emergency personnel were required to quickly notify residents along Thompson Road.
“The first report we got was of a small woodland fire,” said Sheriff’s Office administrator Robert Gray.
No one was reported killed or injured as a result of the blaze, but Thompson Road was scorched. Homes, cars, trees and power poles in its path were devastated. It was estimated 575 acres were burned.
The destruction extended south along the roadway to beyond the the Santa Rosa Golf and Beach Club, which also sustained some damage.
But like a tornado, the damage was indiscriminate. While some homes were reduced to rubble, others next door or across the street, appeared to have taken little to no damage.
The Florida Forestry Service worked side by side with the South Walton Fire District to battle the blaze, which was still considered just 60 percent contained at mid-afternoon. People were being allowed to return to their homes along Thompson Road, however.
With low humidity and high winds the South Walton Fire District had “upstaffed” due to the risk of fire, said Fire Chief Ryan Crawford.
Forty forestry workers were on the scene early Tuesday, but more were expected, according to Forestry Service spokesman Steve Wheherley. The Forestry Service was stretched thin across the Panhandle as wild fires raged in Santa Rosa County and Washington County as well as Walton County.
Crews from Chelco were working alongside fire, Sheriff’s Office and forestry units to restore power and replace damaged poles.
The fire, which started last night along Mussett Bayou Road jumped U.S. Highway 98 and made its way down Thompson Road.
There, dozens of homes were consumed, while the fire skipped over others, leaving them virtually untouched. Other homes were severely damaged, but not completely destroyed.
Steve Vaggalis was reserving hotel rooms Wednesday night before people even called.
And they did.
The lead pastor and founder of Destiny Worship Center said the Church helped 20 people find a place to sleep after they were displaced from their homes in the South Walton fire.
He expects that number to grow.
“It happened so abruptly,” Vaggalis said. “The families that came to us in the parking lot of our church were just shocked, were bewildered, ‘I can’t go to my house.’ It wasn’t like a hurricane where you had time to prepare. It happened quickly and they were asked to evacuate in a moment’s notice. At the end of the day, we were able to comfort them and provide for them as best as we can.”
The Church provided meals for all the families that were displaced, hosted drive-by food pick-ups at their Destin campus for people that want to eat and delivered two meals for all of the first responders through Wednesday and will continue as long as it is needed.
The Church will offer drive-by meals to families in need at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Destin campus, 122 Poinciana Boulevard, as long as supplies last.
People must be present in a vehicle to receive food and remain in their vehicle.
People who need help can contact Destiny Worship Center through their website at DestinyWorshipCenter.com or social media pages.
“I know people want to help,” Vagallis said. “People have stepped up – it’s unbelievable.Our phones and our website have been blowing up with people offering their rentals. They can’t use their rentals right now, because short-term rentals are closed. I’ve had people offer us extra bedrooms. We have runners taking meals. The response has been overwhelming. It’s beautiful to see the community rally around the community.”
The Church volunteers will soon shift their focus from short-term to long-term help, Vaggalis said. As a pastor, Vaggalis calls upon the Bible story, the good Samaritan.
“They asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” Vaggalis said. “The reality is, it was neighbor helping neighbor. We’re seeing that and it’s beautiful.”
South Walton High School became a shelter within an hour of the South Walton fire Wednesday night.
Jill Smith, the director of facilities and maintenance, said five people stayed the night at the school and they provided 75 people with hotels in the Miramar Beach area and DeFuniak Springs. Those who checked in there had to go through a temperature check and fill out a questionnaire because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The school will continue to act as a shelter through Wednesday and a point of contact between people who were evacuated from their home and the Walton County Sheriff’s Office for escort back to their home.
Butler Elementary School is currently acting as the community’s resource drop-off location for clothing and other items.
Carrie Chavers, the assistant principal of South Walton High School, spoke with principal Alexis Tibbetts, who said they will do everything they can to help the community.
“We’re working with all the different agencies to make sure everyone’s taken care of,” Tibbetts said. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to help our families in the area.”
The Walton County Sheriff’s Office will be helping residents check on their properties after Wednesday night’s wildfires.
Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson said that deputies will be staging at South Walton High School to take people down to check on their properties. Residents will need to provide identification to show where they live.
Residents and fire crews are assessing the damage caused by the wildfires that began Wednesday evening.
About 33 homes have been destroyed by the fire.
Steve Weherley, a mitigation specialist for the Florida Forest Service, said the fire began on the north side of U.S. highway 98 about 5 p.m.
“It was a very wind driven fire. It ended up jumping to the south side of 98,” he said.
Weherley said that his crews aggressively attacked the fire and saved quite a few homes. By the end of the night the fire had burned about 575 acres and was 60% contained, according to Weherley .
Crews remained on the scene overnight and were able to maintain the 60% containment.
Today he said they will expand the fire lines until the fire is 100% contained.
Rain is in the forecast for Friday but Weherley does not expect the rain to help that much.
“We still have some bad fire weather the next couple of days. This fire, when its out, it will be put out by the firefighters and not the weather,“ Weherley said.
The Florida Forest Service currently has about 40 staff members working to contain the fire with additional resources on the way.
The fire was started by an illegal burn. Weherley said the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will be conducting an investigation into the matter.
According to a press release from the Florida Forestry Service, the blaze is now 60 percent contained.
It started from an “illegal materials burn,” the release said.
More than 30 homes were destroyed by the fires, according to South Walton Fire District Chief Ryan Crawford.
9 a.m. update
SANTA ROSA BEACH — The South Walton Fire District estimated fires that had ravaged nearly 600 acres and destroyed about 20 structures, were 60% contained as the sun rose Thursday.
Spokesman Sammy Sanchez told reporters that fire fighters were prepared to “cut a line” around the fire to prevent it from continuing to spread. He said the fire had consumed 575 acres in the vicinity of Thompson Road.
Sanchez said it was hoped the blaze could be fully contained Thursday, but that is some places the terrain could make it difficult to get to.
Reports said the wildfire had started in the vicinity of Mussett Bayou, west of the Louis Louis restaurant and had burned in an area at Bishop Tolbert Road. A command center had been established at Thompson Road.
The fire began Wednesday in near drought conditions in Northwest Florida and its spread was aided by high winds and low humidity.
Another wild fire was raging in Santa Rosa County. The Florida Forestry Service had deployed equipment to the area to assist in fighting the Walton County blaze.