Man charged in Mussett Bayou wildfire in South Walton pleads not guilty

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — The man charged with starting the May 6 wildfire that scorched 343 acres in southern Walton County, destroying 34 homes and damaging an additional 25 residences, has pleaded not guilty to the three misdemeanor charges lodged against him, according to Walton County Circuit Court records.

There were no injuries in the blaze, which took more than a week, and the work of a number of firefighting agencies, to bring to full containment.

Allen Boyd Smith, 59, of a Mussett Bayou Road address, had been scheduled to appear in court Thursday, but on Monday, through his public defender, he filed a written notice of his intention to plead not guilty to charges of reckless burning of lands, burning illegal/prohibited materials and an open burning violation, according to court records.

The open burning and illegal/prohibited materials burning charges are first-degree misdemeanors, while the reckless burning of lands charge is a second-degree misdemeanor.

In Florida, first-degree misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Second-degree misdemeanors are punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Initial pre-trial proceedings in the case are scheduled for Aug. 5, according to court documents.

Smith was taken into custody on May 12 by Walton County sheriff’s deputies after investigators with the state’s Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement (AgLaw) obtained warrants for his arrest.

AgLaw investigators determined that Smith “had been burning illegal/prohibited materials in a burn barrel at the rear of his property” and “did not fully extinguish the illegal fire completely before leaving the burn barrel unattended,” according to a news release issued at the time of Smith’s arrest.

At some point, according to investigators, “the remaining hot materials inside the burn barrel escaped into the surrounding dry vegetation causing the vegetation to ignite.”

Also at the time, Max Flugrath, press secretary to Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, said Smith “was burning siding from his trailer, which had been painted and treated, in addition to other building materials.”

Weather conditions at the time — specifically, low humidity, wind and a lack of rainfall — contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

Mussett Bayou Road is on the north side of U.S. Highway 98 between Walton County Roads 30A and 393. Much of the fire’s damage came on the south side of U.S. Highway 98 — the Thompson Road area was particularly hard-hit — as winds pushed embers southward across the highway and ignited blazes on that side of the road.