Coastal Franklin County’s small Eastpoint community is picking up the pieces after a wildfire ravaged about 820 acres of land, destroying 36 homes. But for the hundreds displaced, there are more question marks in the aftermath than there are answers.
Pamela Brownell is Franklin County’s Emergency Management director. She’s not an out-of-towner coming in to help with disaster relief – this is her community. Brownell knows better than most: For small towns, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story.
“When you look at 36 homes that are gone in a community of 125 homes, that’s a lot,” Brownell said. “It’s devastating to this small county.”
But beyond the tragic images of Eastpoint residents sifting through the ashes that used to be their homes, vehicles and possessions – there’s some hidden subtext. Brownell knows the story of Eastpoint is one of a struggling industry, and dedicated oyster fishermen and women.
“Most of them are seafood workers. They work the oyster industry. And everybody knows that has dwindled down. They’re trying to bring the Bay back as hard as they can but – that’s their income. And a lot of boats got burned, so they can’t go to work. It’s a very poor, poor community,” Brownell said. “Of course, our county is a poor county.”
Franklin County’s property appraiser has estimated total damage from the fire at just over $1.7 million. Brownell says it is now on Gov. Rick Scott to call for federal funding, which she says the community needs.
“We’ve checked, there’s no FEMA trailers – this is not a federal disaster,” Brownell said. “We’re still waiting on our governor to do an executive order for us, and if he does that then it turns on a few more faucets for us.”
At the time of this story’s writing, Gov. Scott still has not issued an executive order. A statement from the Governor’s office says if state resources can’t meet Franklin County’s need, the move will be considered.
Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam on Wednesday announced he knew the cause of the fire – a prescribed burn.
According to Putnam, the burn was carried out by a company called Wildland Fire Services, Inc. Putnam says the company was under contract with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But, in a subsequent statement, the FWC did not blame the company. Instead, the agency says an investigation is still active and it will “hold any entity found responsible for wrongdoing fully accountable.”
The FWC declined to do an interview for this story. Meanwhile, the agency has since suspended its prescribed burn program.
That could prove frustrating for scientists and fire researchers who believe in the long-running practice. David Godwin is a program coordinator for Southern Fire Exchange, a program run between University of Florida, Tall Timbers Research Station, and North Carolina State University.
“Prescribed fires are the way that we need to most efficiently and effectively manage our ecosystems. And also to manage our fuels, to reduce the likelihood of wildfires,” Godwin said during the Prescribed Fire Science Consortium earlier this year. He says a good deal of public outreach is done by fire researchers to inform the public of benefits of the practice.
“The research shows, there’s generally speaking a very good acceptance of the use of prescribed fire in the Southeast,” Godwin said. “Part of maintaining that is a continual sort of outreach and education effort.”
While the factors that caused the fire are being pinpointed, one lifelong Eastpoint resident says the conditions were ripe for a fire.
Evelyn Carroll is a parishioner at Eastpoint First Baptist, where she is volunteering after the fire to provide clothing, supplies, showers and even lodging for the displaced.
“We haven’t had rain for a while. It’s been really dry,” Carroll said. “Your grass is crackly, it’s been that dry.”
Carroll says she can remember another disaster that rocked the small community – but it’s not easily comparable to the wildfire.
“It’s been the biggest disaster we’ve had – except in ‘85 when a hurricane hit and killed our oysters. And we couldn’t oyster for about two years. But this has been, as far as homes – even in hurricanes we haven’t lost homes,” Carroll said.
While she’s tending to walk-ins – displaced people and families in need, Carroll is careful not to simply offer prayers. Even in her faith life, she says action is called for during disaster.
“I don’t just say ‘God will take care of you,’ I don’t tell them that,”Carroll said. “Because, the Bible tells us we’ve got to do something. Instead of just telling them, okay it’s going to get better, we got to do something to make it better.”
State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis announced days after the fire that up to $5,000 dollars is being offered to the fire’s victims as temporary support.
“What we’re trying to do is help those families displaced by the fire basically have a supplemental living support to help them find rent, clothes, a roof over the head of their children,” Patronis said. “And allow them to get back to the rest of life’s requirements.”
Patronis praised the state’s responses to disasters. He says non-governmental organizations play a part.
“In the State of Florida, we tend to, at least in my opinion, handle disasters very well,” Patronis said. “We collaborate well together, with all of the private, public, not-for-profit and government entities together to try to bring the resources.”
One of those organizations is The Red Cross. Dianna Van Horn, a Red Cross public affairs and disaster training specialist, says many of those waiting for help don’t have insurance.
“In a community like Eastpoint, where it’s a small close-knit community and they may not have as many resources as other places might – they may be like me and not have insurance,” Van Horn said. “And so, if something happened to my house, I would be devastated because I would have lost everything. And have no quick financial way, or even a slow financial way knowing insurance, to help build it back. It’s devastating. So, it’s great that the community pulls together.”
And Eastpoint is doing just that – pulling together. Charles Brannen sat outside his house for hours in the days after the fire, collecting and distributing bags of free dog food. The fire only missed his home by 50 yards, he says a change of direction in wind was his only saving grace. Most everyone affected by the fire, he knows.
“I’ve got them logged in right there, I’ve got however many animals they’ve got, where they live at. To where I can just double check and make sure they are a fire victim, and not just somebody wanting some free dog food,” Brannen said.
It’s that kind of resilience Brannen says makes Eastpoint what it is.
“It’s pretty knit. When somebody gets down, the neighbors help them out,” Brannen said. “That’s what’s built this lil’ ol’ town right here, and we’re going to try to continue that.”
Meanwhile, with few available rental properties in the area, Florida’s Department of Emergency Management says it is coordinating with companies like Air BnB to identify available spaces.
To contact reporter Ryan Dailey, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @RT_Dailey