As the Mussett Bayou wildfire, which consumed nearly 600 acres in South Walton County, came under additional control Friday, homeowners within the area of the wildfire were allowed to return to their residences. While the return was a relief to those who found their houses had been spared, others found themselves sifting through ashes amid the remains of burned-out appliances and twisted metal.
SANTA ROSA BEACH — As Jon Stephenson poked Friday through the pile of ash that two days before had been the home he and his wife Julie shared, he was looking for one thing in particular.
“I’m hoping that maybe I can find my wedding ring in the ashes,” he said as he stood at the curb in front of the couple’s address on Woodshire Drive in the Thompson Woods subdivision on Thompson Road.
Thompson Road and its numerous side streets were left in substantial ruin as a wildfire ripped across the area Wednesday evening, claiming dozens of homes as it consumed an estimated 575 acres on both the north and south sides of U.S. Highway 98.
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By Friday morning, the blaze had been 70 percent contained, according to the Florida Forest Service, although fire officials indicated that they likely will be on the scene for a number of days to ensure that the fire doesn’t flare up.
The blaze reportedly began as an illegal burn in the Mussett Bayou area. fueled by winds and dry vegetation, the fire jumped southward across U.S. Highway 98 and destroyed nearly 40 homes, according to officials.
The Stephensons — he’s an Air Force pilot, and she works from home — have been married only since November, and the Woodshire Drive home had been their first residence.
Somewhat incongruously, moments after the couple arrived to find their home in ruins, a UPS truck arrived with a delivery, as if nothing had happened.
But that bit of normalcy wasn’t much solace for the couple.
“Devastation,” Jon Stephenson said when asked how it felt to return to a home reduced to ashes and assorted rubble.
Moments later, the couple stood in the middle of those ashes, arms around each other, occasionally bending down to pick up some artifact of their pre-wildfire lives.
Ironically, Jon Stephenson first saw the danger to the couple’s home when he stepped out to see if he could see smoke from other wildfires that had been torched Wednesday across Northwest Florida, including a 2,000-acre blaze to the west in Santa Rosa County.
What Stephenson saw instead, he said, were fire trucks and police cars coming down Thompson Road ahead of a wildfire in his own neighborhood.
Five minutes later, after grabbing some clothes and his wife’s dog, the couple were headed out of their neighborhood to safety.
“I’m looking out the back window (of the car), and (the view) is filled with fire and flames,” Jon Stephenson said. The couple spent the night in a friend’s home in Point Washington, trying to be optimistic about what they might find when they returned to Woodshire Drive.
“There was a bit of hope,” Jon Stephenson said. “I was hoping maybe just the exterior of the house” would be damaged.
Instead, for the foreseeable future, the Stephensons will be living at the house of a military friend now deployed, until they figure out their next steps.
Across the area burned by the wildfire, in some places there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the targets of the blaze. Some houses were left untouched while houses on either side were either destroyed or badly damaged.
On the north side of the half-mile Woodshire Drive, where the Stephensons’ home had been, houses was burned to the ground.
But on the south side of the street, while some homes did sustain serious damage and one was completely destroyed, the rest of the homes suffered only smoke damage, with maybe the garage door left askew by the heat.
That was the case for Joe and Diane Leitner, an older couple whose house on the south side of Woodshire Drive was virtually untouched, although the backyard was charred by the blaze and remained smoking on Friday.
Joe Leitner said he initially saw smoke and ashes in the neighborhood on Wednesday, and went outside to investigate. A short time later, he said, a Walton County sheriff’s deputy came “pounding on the door, and telling us we had 15 seconds to get out.”
Driving out of the neighborhood along Thompson Road, the Leitners ran through a short gamut of flames on both sides of the road, hot enough to feel through the car’s windows.
The couple stayed at a Destin hotel, and like other evacuees, were left wondering about the fate of their house.
“We thought it was gone,” Diane Leitner said.
However, in the hours after the blaze roared through their neighborhood, the couple happened to see some drone camera footage posted on YouTube that appeared to show their house. (Such drone flights, which could have presented a hazard to any aircraft brought in to fight the blaze, eventually were prohibited by authorities as massive firefighting efforts continued throughout Wednesday evening into Thursday).
The Leitners pulled into their driveway around 10 a.m. Friday, to find the interior reeking of smoke, the window frames discolored by smoke, and the garage door damaged by the heat of the blaze, but no other readily apparent damage..
“We’re really surprised,” said Joe Leitner.
While surprised at their own good fortune, the Leitners were saddened by their neighbor’s misfortune. They know the Stephensons, but Joe Leitner on Friday was wary about how best to approach them, given the Leitners’ own good fortune.
“I don’t even want to talk to them,” Leitner said. “I feel guilty.”
A couple of doors — or more property now, lots — down the street from the Leitners, a family pulled up Friday morning to what had once been their home, apparently the only house on the south side of Woodshire Drive to burn to the ground.
“Well, our house is gone,” said a youngster stepping across the charred remains of what had once been his front yard.
“It’s still smoking,” said the father, who declined to speak further about the family’s loss as they poked through the place where their house once stood, finding things like a plate left undamaged in a charred dishwasher.
A few dozen yards away Friday, Amy Baker and her two sons, 12-year-old Max and 15-year-old Noah, with help from others, sifted through belongings that made it through the blaze relatively unscathed, although the roof of their house had burned away and water from firefighting efforts, pooled on the bedroom floor above the carport, made it an urgent matter to get their Jeep out of the carport.
Like the Stephensons, Baker found the word “devastating” the best way to describe the loss of her home. But she also mourned the loss of the neighborhood.
“We love our neighbors” she said. “We love our street.”
“And now,” she added, choking back tears, “we don’t know where we’ll all be.”