The Florida Department of Agriculture is investigating and charges are pending, according to Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson.

SANTA ROSA BEACH — A man burning "illegal materials" on a day when no burn permits were being issued ignited a Walton County fire that destroyed 33 homes and did substantial damage to a handful more.


The Florida Department of Agriculture is investigating and charges are pending, according to Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson.


The fire began on Mussett Bayou Road about 5 p.m. Wednesday and spread quickly. After it jumped U.S. Highway 98, emergency personnel were required to quickly notify residents along Thompson Road.


No one was reported killed or injured as a result of the blaze, but Thompson Road was scorched. Homes, cars, trees and power poles in its path were devastated. It was estimated that 575 acres were burned.


"As far as urban interface, this is among the worst cases we’ve seen," said Steve Weherley, a mitigation specialist for the Florida Forestry Service.


He was referring to houses that were built along a woodline, leaving little "defensive space" to protect them.


He also said with conditions as they are it could be well over a week before the fire is completely contained.


A map of the fire indicates it burned along a relatively thin line. Wednesday’s winds prevented it from cutting a wider swath, Weherley he said. The destruction extended south along the road to beyond Santa Rosa Golf and Beach Club, which also sustained some damage.


But like a tornado, the damage was indiscriminate. While some homes were reduced to rubble, others next door or across the street appeared to have taken little to no damage.


The Florida Forestry Service worked side by side with the South Walton Fire District to battle the blaze, which was still considered just 60 percent contained at mid-afternoon Thursday. People were being allowed to return to their homes along Thompson Road, however.


With low humidity and high winds, the South Walton Fire District had "upstaffed" because of the fire risk, Fire Chief Ryan Crawford said.


By early Thursday afternoon, Brenden Shipes has only seen photos of his former Santa Rosa Beach home.


His was one of more than 30 structures that were destroyed.


"It’s down to just the foundation and the brick in the front," Shipes said. "It’s just rubble now. My house and the house adjacent to mine, to the right of it, southbound, is also leveled."


Shipes was moving furniture and was driving down U.S. Highway 98 when he first noticed the fire Wednesday night. He and his roommate, Kaleb Cromer, watched from the road until the flames split into two, crossing the power lines, he said.


They watched as several sheriff’s deputies knocked on doors to ask people to evacuate – including them. That was when Shipes started to worry.


"When we were loading up the truck, there was heavy ash debris falling, charcoal ash," Shipes said. "The cop was just sitting there waiting, making sure we got out before anything happened. My neighbor stayed there until the fire had gotten to the back of his house."


In five minutes, Shipes wrangled up his 3-year-old pit bull Murphy, and Cromer loaded up clothes and guns. They left everything else behind.


They drove south on Thompson Road and were told by a friend that the roads were fine. The fire nearly melted the paint off his truck.


"Once we went southbound, there were pocket fires on both sides of the road," Shipes said. "Two houses were on fire. There was a 75-foot flame wall on the hilltop right across from the cemetery and we had to drive through that. Once we got through it, we looked back and the whole entire road was completely engulfed in flames and smoke. We could feel the heat through the truck."


The survival of Cynthia Mims’ home in Santa Rosa Beach was nothing short of a miracle.


Hers was one of several on Delbert Lane that were left spared from the fire amid others that weren’t.


"We were very lucky," Mims said. "We were very blessed at this location. It’s like we were in the center, our little street. There were several of us in the center of it and our houses were totally untouched. And then houses around us were burned completely to the ground — nothing left."


Her rental home on Thompson Road, however, was a complete loss, she said.


Mims recalls hearing about the fire Wednesday night from her neighbor.


"My next door neighbor called and asked me if I was outside," Mims said. "I said, ‘No, should I be?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ When I went outside into the street, we looked north and we could see the smoke billowing and hear the firetrucks."


Within 20 minutes, the fire had spread east, come across U.S. 98 and was directly behind her house.


"Everybody on our street, we were all running and scrambling to turn on our sprinklers, any water hoses and stuff like that, that we could use to saturate the ground," Mims said. "When I came back to my house to reset my sprinkler system, there was a policeman standing at my garage, who said, ‘You have to leave, ma’am. You have to evacuate immediately,’ which was very scary. I grabbed two of my dogs, my purse and my Bible, jumped in the car and left."


Mims stayed at a friend’s house that night and returned to her home at noon Thursday.


"It was an absolute miracle," Mims said. "The only thing we had damaged was some fence in the back of the property and some outdoor furniture where the ash and the embers and stuff blew so much, it blew onto our patio. It burned some holes in the cushions of our outdoor furniture."


The rumors are not true.


Owner Oliver Petit said his restaurant Louis Louis on Mussett Bayou Road was not damaged in the fire. Many people were concerned because his other iconic bar and restaurant, The Red Bar, is being rebuilt after it burned down in February 2019.


"It’s OK; we dodged a bullet," Petit said. "It (the fire) was raging across the street from it. The wind was blowing southeast. It was so close, so scary, so frightening."


Petit’s aunt’s home on Thompson Road burned down. The home of his father, who lives on Laurel Road perpendicular to Mussett Bayou Road, and the home of one of the restaurant’s longtime bartenders were spared.


Having a fire so close to another one of Petit’s restaurants was terrifying, he said.


"From Louis Louis, if you can imagine the shopping center where (VKI Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar) is and the different shops there, the flames were hovering east of that," Petit said. "You could clearly see it. It was 600 feet from us."


Petit was bewildered and frightened, he said.


"I actually stood there with my water hose in hand, naively ready to use in case it got to the front door," Petit said. "The fire department was already there, working diligently. It was incredible."


Steve Vaggalis was reserving hotel rooms Wednesday night before people even called.


And they did.


The lead pastor and founder of Destiny Worship Center said the church helped 20 people find a place to sleep after they were displaced from their homes.


He expects that number to grow.


"It happened so abruptly," Vaggalis said. "The families that came to us in the parking lot of our church were just shocked, were bewildered, ‘I can’t go to my house.’ It wasn’t like a hurricane where you had time to prepare. It happened quickly and they were asked to evacuate in a moment’s notice. At the end of the day, we were able to comfort them and provide for them as best as we can."


The church provided meals for all the families that were displaced, hosted drive-by food pickups at its Destin campus for people who wanted to eat and delivered two meals for all of the first responders through Wednesday. It will continue as long as it is needed.


"I know people want to help," Vagallis said. "People have stepped up; it’s unbelievable.Our phones and our website have been blowing up with people offering their rentals. They can’t use their rentals right now because short-term rentals are closed. I’ve had people offer us extra bedrooms. We have runners taking meals. The response has been overwhelming. It’s beautiful to see the community rally around the community."


Volunteers will soon shift their focus from short-term to long-term help, Vaggalis said. As a pastor, he calls upon the Bible story about the good Samaritan.


"They asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ " Vaggalis said. "The reality is, it was neighbor helping neighbor. We’re seeing that and it’s beautiful."