“She had been out of work for 60 days, then she goes back to work for the first time and her house burns down.”
SANTA ROSA BEACH — Some of Branch McClendon’s neighbors’ houses are still standing. Some aren’t.
McClendon considers himself one of the lucky ones. His family’s home on Thompson Road is still intact.
“I feel like we were extremely fortunate considering our neighbors on all sides lost their homes,” McClendon said. “The wind was moving in so many different directions so quickly. The fire would go east and then it would turn north, and then it would go south. It depends on where you were when the fire did what it wanted to do. I’ve been down here for quite some time and have been through several hurricanes, but this was a whole different kind of scary.”
He first noticed the fire around 5 p.m. Wednesday on his way home.
“I turned and looked at the back yard south of my house and the yard next to me, and it was completely on fire,” McClendon said. “It had moved toward Thompson Road through the woods and had burnt the house down to the south of me within 15 minutes probably. I called 9-1-1 to let them know and then I went to the top of the street to see what I could see and was going to go down to the house to see if I could help.”
Emergency services were already on-site. Thompson Road was a chaotic scene, he said.
“A lot of people were trying to evacuate,” McClendon said. “You couldn’t see south on Thompson. You couldn’t see north on Thompson. Everybody was in a panic. They didn’t know whether they could drive through the smoke or a fire was on the other side or what.”
McClendon went home to prepare their home and detached garage, as well as their rental home.
“Turned on the irrigation, pulled out the hoses, grabbed a shovel and tried to pull pine straw away from the house up front,” McClendon said. “Wasn’t able to do it before the fire got there and the shed caught on fire and burned down, but we were able to save the carriage house and the main house just by constantly hosing down everything we could.”
The family’s shed and rental house burned down.
“Our renter, the rental house she was in was totally destroyed,” McClendon said. “I was able to break in and get her dogs out, but there was nothing else I could do. The house burned down and her car burned down. It was pretty sad, because she works in the restaurant business. She had been out of work for 60 days, then she goes back to work for the first time and her house burns down.”
McClendon said a firefighter suggested leaving, but McClendon said he and his wife, Mindy, made a calculated decision that they should stay. Their house is bordered by a lake, concrete and a yard that the fire had already burned through, so he never thought their main house was in jeopardy, he said.
South Walton Fire Marshal Sammy Sanchez said all of Thompson Road was part of the evacuation zone. He does not endorse taking the risk of staying.
“That was a heavily involved part of the fire,” Sanchez said. “We don’t show up and tell people to evacuate without very good reason. We’re just trying to protect people, to protect lives and property. Lives come first.”
The wind was in their favor, McClendon said.
“The fire was moving away from us at that point,” McClendon said. “Being a contractor -- I built the house myself – I just felt like there was a lot of things in our favor that we could stay and save what we could. We had certainly discussed what our limits were and we weren’t going to put ourselves or our children in danger. Everybody pitched in and ran a garden house or ran an irrigation system and kept a lookout from the porch.”
Their “front line” was the east side of the house, McClendon said. What felt like 10 minutes was four hours.
“It was probably 9:30 or 10 o’clock that the tragedy had already passed, the fire had passed,” McClendon said. “You could still hear explosions off in the distance, in the woods – where I guess other people’s stuff was burning and Thompson woods. I felt that our immediate area around 10 o’clock was somewhat stable.”
Their power was on again by noon Thursday, although the gas is still off.
McClendon praised Walton County Sheriff Michael A. Adkinson, Jr., for his efficient response to the fire.
“I’ve seen him handle the oil spill; I’ve seen him handle a hurricane,” McClendon said. ”I really didn’t feel like from an emergency services standpoint that there was ever going to be a chance they weren’t going to be on the scene doing everything they could. There were a lot of agencies out there.”