Saturday's fire leaves ruins, residents react
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 7:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 7:56 p.m.
Stephen West sipped on a beer Monday morning and looked over the charred remains of his home near Salt Springs.
"I helped build that home for my mother and father, and when they passed, I lived in it. It's all gone now," said West, who did not have insurance.
West's was among the 10 homes burned by a fast moving wildfire that swept through Sportsman's Haven No. 1 on Saturday afternoon. The neighborhood, occupied primarily by people in hunt camps, mobile homes and wood-frame houses, was devastated by the fire, which consumed more than 2,000 acres.
Monday was the first day West was able to return to see the damage to the neighborhood, which is just off State Road 19. What he found was little more than ash and charred appliances. A silver-colored jewelry box West was cleaning before the fire was on an outside table in front of his destroyed home. It was one of the few items not touched by the fire.
While West evacuated, his neighbor Frank Myles stayed put with his five dogs and one cat and an undisclosed number of firearms.
"I put my guns, my dogs and the cat in the van. But I wasn't going anywhere," Myles said.
Myles' property abuts the Ocala National Forest. U.S. Forest Service crews had cut a firebreak behind the property earlier on Saturday.
"That's what saved the house," Myles said.
Still, he spent much of Saturday running along his fence line with a bucket, dousing hot spots, and hosing down his roof.
"I didn't have time to be scared. It was all adrenaline," he said. "I wasn't going to burn to death. I wasn't going to let my animals burn to death. I had other plans if it came to that."
Myles said he could barely see and breathe as smoke blacked out the sky.
"I went to the side of the garage, where I could get out of the wind and smoke, and looked up and it was like standing in the eye of a hurricane. I could see the blue sky, everything else was smoke," he said.
He said the sound of the fire was deafening.
"It wasn't exactly like a freight train, but it was like it with the way it roared and moaned," he said.
Several members of the Lunsford family have lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years. Frank Lunsford's home was untouched by the fire, but the home next door, an A-frame wood home built by his father in the 1970s, was destroyed.
"My sister's home was destroyed. She didn't have insurance. They wouldn't insure her because the home didn't have central A/C," Lunsford said.
Walter Lunsford, Frank's brother, had damage to his home that included melted siding. His work shed, which contained several thousand dollars worth of tools, was destroyed.
Sportsman's Haven No. 1 is on the west side of U.S.19. The fire jumped to the east nearby, and was headed toward Lake George, threatening even more homes.
"We thought it was gone. We really thought it was gone," said Jennifer Jackson.
Fortunately, the fire was stopped nearby.
More than 150 emergency workers from the U.S. Forest Service, the Florida Forest Service and Marion County Fire Rescue battled the fire.
On Monday, some residents were upset by the response of some firefighting crews. One resident was upset nearby firefighters did not come to help him keep the fire at bay.
"I lost my car and a boat. They were hanging out at the church. They didn't even bother to come down here," Jimmie Becraft said.
Susan Blake, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman, said judgment calls are made during a fire and human safety trumps property.
"The people who put their lives on the line, they want to get in there, but it may be deemed too dangerous and they are kept out," Blake said, adding that the decision made and actions taken during the fire will be reviewed.
Officials also said at least 100 homes were saved from the fire and no one was seriously injured.
As for the source of the fire, Blake said "human intervention" was suspected.
"It could have been an escaped fire. It could have been a machine that made a spark. It could have been anything," she said. "It's being investigated and I'm sure we will get a full accounting."
West said he had to shoo away two men on Monday morning who were looking to pick up scrap metal from the charred remains.
"I tell you, it don't take long for people to come around trying to make a buck," he said.
He plans to stay with his sister in Daytona for a few days, then will return to the property and stay in a tent until he can rebuild.
"I've been coming out here since I was 10 years old. I'm not going to leave," he said.
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