EASTPOINT, Fla. – John Matthew Polous watched a "controlled-burn" fire for three days as it consumed foliage outside his tiny community on the Florida Panhandle. And then he watched as it quickly raged out of control. What he doesn't understand is why it took government officials until Wednesday to acknowledge that they are the ones responsible for the blaze that destroyed 36 homes, including his.
Polous, a shrimper and oysterman, lost 14 boats, his home and pickup trucks in the quick-moving conflagration Sunday that left behind a trail of ash and ruins in Eastpoint, just across the river from the historic town of Apalachicola.
"They finally admitted to what done it, now let's see what they are going to do," Polous, 51, said while walking through the burned remains of his home. "Why was they even burning this time of year back here? That don't make sense, but they was and there's nothing nobody can do about it."
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam announced Wednesday that the fire was caused by a Tallahassee company hired by the state's wildlife commission to do controlled burns on state lands. Putnam said an investigation by his office eliminated other possible causes, including lightning, arson or an accident.
The fire burned more than 800 acres (320 hectares) and officials said they were suspending the practice of controlled burns statewide while they investigate. Controlled burns are used as a tool to manage forests. They involve burning away underbrush to lessen the danger of future wildfires.
Polous said his house was the first to burn, and the fire came up quickly — he didn't even have time to get his wallet, which was lost in the fire.
"All I could hear was nothing but like a freight train, because it was blowing and it was burning. ... I walked out in the backyard and saw it coming, and that was it. Within a matter of minutes, it was gone, everything I own," he said. "Hopefully something will happen and we can get paid for it. And I hope everybody that lost a house out here gets paid."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that the private company Wildlands Services was contracted to burn 480 acres (194 hectares) on June 18. The agency said 580 acres (235 hectares) of private land separated the controlled burn from the Eastpoint neighborhood. State records show that the company was given a three-year contract worth nearly $60,000 in March to do controlled burns near the Apalachicola River. So far, the company had been paid more than $25,000.
Doug Williams, the owner of Wildlands Service, told the Tallahassee Democrat he had not been contacted by state officials and did not know that Putnam said investigators had determined his company was responsible for the wildfire. He did not return phone calls or emails from The Associated Press.
Faith Grant was spending her day using her car to drag metal from the burned wreckage of the home she shared with her husband, their four kids and her mother- and father-in-law. She's still searching for five dogs that ran off during the fire, which killed a hog they had penned behind the home. She was trying to find a fireproof safe amid the debris with no success.
"It left the truck that don't run and burnt the two trucks that did," said Grant, who is 21 years old.
While officials continue to investigate the fire, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said the state plans to set up a claims office in Franklin County on Thursday. In the meantime, officials will offer up to $5,000 to each household affected by the fire to pay for emergency living expenses, including temporary housing and food, he said.
"It's pretty devastating when you see folks don't have a place to go to," said Patronis, who as a legislator used to represent part of the region.
Polous, meanwhile, was sanguine about his situation.
"I've been burned, shot, blowed up and I'm still here," Polous said. "I'm 51 years old and I'm still here. So, it's not like I ain't seen some bad times and hard times. Life moves on, you just have to move on with it."
Fineout reported from Tallahassee. Associated Press writer Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.