PANAMA CITY, Fla.—Jackie and Rick Wilkie’s nightmare began friday with a cloud of smoke in the distance.
Beginning their afternoon with lunch on the grill at their Panama City, Florida, home, Jackie was inside when Rick sent her photos of black smoke about 4 miles away.
That’s when she first felt something was off, but didn’t think too much of it, she said.
“I’d say probably not even 30, 45 minutes later, in the bedroom with our son and just everything went black, like it looked like it was nighttime outside,” Jackie said.
Within minutes, sirens blared through their neighborhood, and first responders started banging on doors, urging residents to leave their homes immediately due to the approaching wildfire.
‘Raging very quickly’:Massive wildfires burn thousands of acres, force evacuations in Florida Panhandle
The Wilkie’s home was one of two destroyed in the ongoing Adkins Avenue firewhich was more than 1.3 square miles and 40% contained as of Monday. First responders say at least a dozen more homes were damaged but can’t yet give complete assessments. On Sunday evening, 1,100 families remained on mandatory evacuation.
Two other wildfires — the Bertha Swamp Road Fire, which covers more than 18 square miles, and the Star Avenue Fire, which covers less than half a square mile — also threaten the area.
Jackie Wilkie said a neighbor who evacuated had access to his security cameras and showed them their house.
“The home started to get engulfed I’d say probably about seven minutes. It was approximately seven minutes after we left,” Wilkie said.
Looking back at footage, she said the couple’s bedroom was the first to go up in flames, which is where they store all their documents and childhood items. She said their hearts sunk knowing everything they’ve left behind, especially items from their son’s first 18 months.
“Just everything that we had saved and stored in our bedroom, but the biggest thing was just things that can’t be replaced,” Jackie said. “My wedding dress and a couple of the childhood things that we’ve been able to keep from our parents.”
‘In three years, I’ve lost two houses’
Paul and Laurie Shuman also watched glimpses of their home go up in flames through an ADT security camera system videos on Paul’s phone.
“I can’t remember if we were at the neighborhood or before we got to the neighborhood and my phone buzzed again, and it was (a notification from) ‘ADT: no power,'” he said. “And I knew right then and there the house was completely gone.”
By the time the couple arrived as close to their home as they could safely — about a mile out — the home was charred to pieces, with only the garage door, part of the brick frame, and the frame to the pool covering still standing. They lost everything.
“The shock hasn’t hit me yet,” Laurie Shuman said, noting her husband has gone inside and taken pictures of the charred home, but recommended she stay away from the desolate scene. “When I see the house, that’s when it’s going to hit me — that’s when I’ll break.”
Like other families in the eastern Bay County area, the Shumans were getting settled into a new house after losing their home during Hurricane Michael in October 2018.
“When you talk about starting over, there’s starting over and then there’s starting from the beginning. In three years, I’ve lost two houses,” Paul Shuman said, adding he also lost his job in that time period after the county closed the incinerator at which he had worked for 25 years. “It’s one thing after the other.”
Bay County was hit hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018, which was directly responsible for 16 deaths and about $25 billion in damage in the US, and left behind 72 million tons of destroyed trees that have provided fuel for the Bay County wildfires, according to the Florida Forest Service.
“After Hurricane Michael, you had a massive amount of this basically dried tinder that was left in its wake, and so these fires were something people have been discussing for many years now,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Saturday.
The Shuman family had stayed home during the hurricane, later realizing the water damage was too great to salvage the house. They lost the majority of their items but were able to keep such heirlooms as Laurie Shuman’s grandmother’s and mother’s jewelry and fine china.
Those items were lost Friday.
However, she said most regrettably, the family lost Bella, an 8-year-old schnauzer-shih tzu the family had since she was just weeks old.
“I called 911 and told them to kick the door in and get my dog, I don’t care about the house,” Laurie said.
Paul’s employer is providing a temporary apartment for the family until their circumstances improve.
“We worked hard to get where we’re at,” Paul said. “I never in my life expected to lose everything in a matter of an hour. The hurricane was one thing, but we didn’t lose all of our personal possessions.”
He added: “You don’t realize what you have until you don’t have it, the smallest little things. We’re talking 35 years; we were at a comfortable place in our lives, we thought we were going to retire in that house.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism