“All of the rest of the houses around us are good. Yours was the only one that went up.”
SANTA ROSA BEACH – Keith Wildes knows what goes into building a house.
The carpenter of more than 30 years knows, too, what goes into building a home.
Keith and his wife, Lisa, had a house and a home on Delbert Lane in Santa Rosa Beach until it burned down Wednesday night in a large wildfire that spread across South Walton. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of emotions for them and their sons, Joel, 20, a ministry leader at Destiny Worship Center, and Shawn, 18, a recent graduate of South Walton High School, dual enrolled at Northwest Florida State College.
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“You go from sobbing, crying to laughing to overwhelmed with the generosity of our friends, our church, our neighbors and everybody trying to help,” Keith said. “We are blessed. I can’t complain. Out of all the people on our street, couldn’t have happened to anyone better than us because at least I can rebuild. I’m a carpenter.”
The family has since stayed with friends in a townhome near South Walton High School. A GoFundMe page was started to raise money for them.
‘The only one’
Keith had just gotten home from work around 4 p.m. and was reorganizing a few things in his construction van when he first heard the sirens.
But they hear fire trucks all the time, he said.
“We’re pretty close to 98 so you don’t really think anything of it,” Keith said. “When you hear it, you stop and pray for the people and hope that God’s hands are on it. Then my wife came out and started talking to me and said, ‘Look at all the smoke.’ I said, ‘Yeah, must be a fire.’”
The two weren’t sure how or where the fire started, but Lisa felt compelled to film videos of their house.
“I walked in and I said, ‘It’s gonna be OK. God’s got this,’” Keith said.
Keith followed his wife’s inclination and filmed a quick video of his tools in the garage. When he returned, the Walton County Sheriff’s Department asked them to evacuate.
“We could hear the fire crackling,” Keith said. “We could hear maybe bobcats or something pushing trees over, too. They said, ‘It’s coming straight this way. We gotta make sure we get you guys safe.’ They did a great job. They were very courteous, very quick to react.”
Lisa collected their tortoise, Sid, and dog, Frankie. Shawn grabbed his Xbox and monitor – the important things, Keith said with a laugh, and went to a friend’s house. Joel gathered a few of his possessions and stayed with his father.
“I opened up my van, grabbed my Bible, my shofar and my dad’s clock,” Keith said. “That’s all I could get.”
A shofar is a trumpet made from a ram’s horn used in religious ceremonies.
As they drove away, the woods were burning on both sides of their car.
“We drove through flames,” Keith said. “We are very blessed to get out safe. I have my family, and my animals are safe. It’s just stuff. It’s all God’s anyways.”
Keith found out the condition of their home that night.
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“My neighbor to my west called me at 10:45 that night and said, ‘Keith, I have horrible news. Your house is gone and your garage is completely gone,’” Keith said. “I said, ‘OK. How are you guys? Are you guys safe?’ He said, ‘All of the rest of the houses around us are good. Yours was the only one that went up.’”
Police officers escorted the Wildes family to their property for a short visit Thursday. Little was left, Keith said.
While they were there, a fireman spoke to them about what happened. The firefighter said they were fighting the fire in the woods and around the houses close to the woods on the North end of the street. The Wildes family lived in a cul-de-sac on the south end.
“They weren’t really too concerned with mine because I had no trees around my house, so they thought I was a little more safe I guess,” Keith said. “He said a fireball about the size of my house came through the woods off the top of the trees, went straight into my front porch and ignited it. He said by the time they could get the trucks turned around and get the hoses, the house and shop was already gone.”
‘We have the memories’
Keith and Lisa put their heart and soul into the house they lived in for the past four years.
Keith, a carpenter, and Lisa, a former hair dresser, built it from meager means. Keith constructed 60% of it himself.
“We never made a whole lot of money in our lives,” Keith said. “It was our life savings. I cashed in the only 401k I had. We bought the lot and built the house. We did it with every penny we had. So that was our retirement.”
It was a pretty house, Keith said.
Since the day it was built, they have dedicated the space to God. They hosted many small groups inside. Joel, a future pastor, hosted them, too.
“It was an open house,” Keith said. “Everyone came to our house. We love kids and we love the elderly. My wife and I have done marriage groups for 20 years, so we did marriage groups there. A house is just a tool.”
What’s inside of that house was “just stuff,” Keith repeated. But, it was stuff that meant something. Inside were 30-plus years worth of collected construction tools and all of their family’s keepsakes.
“My wife and I both lost parents, so their stuff is all gone,” Keith said. “Our wedding pictures are all gone. Our kids’ pictures are all gone. All that stuff was on pictures back then; it’s not digital like it is nowadays. But we have the memories; that’s all the matters.”
The coronavirus outbreak has only made the situation worse in terms of convenience, Keith said. He left his wallet in the house, which held his credit cards and driver’s license.
“It’s not like I can go down to the DMV and get one printed; they’re closed,” Keith said.
The family has been communicating with their insurance provider and has received an outpouring of support from the community – a community known for rebuilding after hurricanes, he said.
What Keith knows for sure is they plan to stay. This is where they have built their lives.
“This our home,” Keith said. “This is our area of life. We’ve lived here since ’95. We will rebuild and keep moving on. We can’t do anything, but take one day at a time. It’s like the movie, ‘Lion King’ when the monkey hits Simba on the head with a stick. Simba goes, ‘What was that for?’ He goes, ‘Doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.’ That’s how you live it, move on everyday.”
Lisa plans to take some time off of work from a boutique inside The Henderson Beach & Resort. On Monday, however, Keith will return to something he knows well.
“I have many clients and builders that depend on me to finish their houses and build their furniture,” Keith said. “I have to keep working.”