State: Controlled burn sparked fire that destroyed 36 homes

EASTPOINT, Fla. – John Matthew Polous watched a “controlled burn” fire for three days, because it consumes the foliage outside of his small community on the Florida Panhandle. And when he saw that he quickly raged out of control. What he doesn’t understand, is why it took officials until Wednesday to acknowledge that they are the ones who are responsible for the fire that destroyed 36 homes, including his.

Polous, a shrimper and oysterman, lost 14 boats, his house and pick-up trucks in the fast-moving inferno Sunday that left a trail of ash and debris in east point, on the opposite side of the river from the historic city centre of Apalachicola.

“They finally admitted to, what it’s done, now let’s see what they going to do,” Polous, 51, said during a walk through the burnt remains of his house. “Why, she was even burning this time of year back here? That made no sense, but she was, and there is nothing that nobody can do.”

Agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam announced Wednesday that the fire was caused by a Tallahassee firm hired by the state of nature in the commission to do controlled burns on state lands. Putnam said that an investigation by his office eliminated other possible causes, such as lightning, arson or an accident.

The fire burned more than 800 acres (320 ha), and officials said they were suspending the practice of controlled burns statewide while they investigate the case. Controlled burns are used as a tool for managing forests. They involve burning away underbrush, reducing the danger of future forest fires.

Polous said that his house was the first to burn, and the fire came up quickly — he had not even the time to his wallet, which was lost in the fire.

“All I could hear was nothing, but if a freight train because it blew and was on fire. … I went outside in the back yard and saw it coming, and that was it. Within a matter of minutes, it was gone, everything I owned,” he said. “Hopefully something will happen and we can get paid for it. And I hope that everyone that lost a home here will be paid.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that the company’s uncultivated land Services is closed burn 480 acres (194 hectares) on June 18. The agency said 580 acres (235 ha) of private land separated from the controlled fires of the east end neighborhood. State records show that the company received a three-year contract worth nearly $60,000 in March to do controlled burns in the vicinity of the Apalachicola River. So far the company had already paid more than $25,000.

Doug Williams, the owner of the uncultivated land Service, told the Tallahassee Democrat he had not been approached by state officials and did not know that Putnam said that the researchers had established, his company was responsible for the wildfire. He did not return phone calls or e-mails from The Associated Press.

Faith Grant was spending her day with her car, dragging the metal from the burnt wreckage of the house she shared with her husband, their four children and her mother – and father-in-law. She is still looking for the five dogs that ran during the fire, which killed a pig, they had written behind the house. She was looking for a fireproof safe to the middle of the rubble with no success.

“Leaving the truck that is not and burned the two trucks,” 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 per 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 people not having a place to go,” said Patronis, who as a legislator used to indicate a part of the region.

Polous, meanwhile, was optimistic about his situation.

“I’ve been burned, shot, blowed and I’m still here,” Polous said. “I’m 51 years old and I’m still here. So, it’s not like I have not seen him in some bad times and difficult times. Life goes on, you should just go with it.”


Fineout reported from Tallahassee. Associated Press writer Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.

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