“I’m a lucky guy,” said Dennis Lee Thompson. Through wind, rain, and now fire, he stays completely optimistic. His roof is still blue from Hurricane Irma, and he is living in a tent beside his Big Pine Key home. Today, he says he’s lucky because he has his health and his two cats, Doe and Me, are safe.
“This is just crazy,” he said as a helicopter dropped buckets of water surrounding his Almond Lane home. Fires were still flaring up Monday afternoon only yards away from his house. His home is completely gutted from the storm surge that flooded his home seven and half months ago. He’s on a waitlist to have his roof fixed.
His tent, filled with smoke from the surrounding fires, has his necessities — a bed, a fan, and a flat screen T.V. Outside his tent, canned goods and a microwave sit under a covered carport.
“I removed 10,000 nails and 80,000 screws myself,” he said. “I can’t imagine cleaning up after the hurricane and then losing it to a fire.”
Thompson, a granite sculptor and woodworker, is on a fixed income and as he watched the helicopters fly over and douse the woods around his home with saltwater, he worried about his commercial fishing boat in the water in his backyard. “If the ashes catch the fiberglass on fire, that will be one big mess.” he said.
The fire has been fueled by dry, dead vegetation, mostly Hurricane Irma-damaged trees and a lack of rain in the area. A contracted helicopter with the federal government made more than 100 air drops on Monday with about 800 gallons of water in each drop.
“Thank goodness we don’t have a lack of saltwater around here,” said one resident, standing on the corner of her street watching the helicopter make passes. “I’d gladly pay his paycheck for yesterday and today; he’s saving our houses.”
In addition to Florida Keys area fire departments, the response included firefighters from Miami-Dade County, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NAS Key West, National Park Service and Florida Forest Service and U.S. Forest Service. Monroe County Public Works staffers were also on hand cutting through the dense areas on backhoes to create cleared barriers to keep the fire from spreading to a nearby apartment building.
As of Monday, one home and a detached garage were lost to the fire. Several homes in the area were evacuated. The priorities are to protect people’s homes and prevent the fire from spreading. As of Tuesday morning, the fire remained about 50 percent contained with more than 100 acres burned. About 1,900 Keys customers also lost power on Sunday afternoon, but it was returned to most by Sunday night. A Key Deer fawn was also saved from the fire Sunday night and was safely released.
“Through the incredible hard work of the men and women firefighters, we were able to save several homes and nobody was injured,” said Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt, who is leading the incident. “Some firefighters worked through the night without rest and continue to work today.”
At this time, the cause of the fire is unknown. The State Fire Marshal, Monroe County Fire Rescue, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Forest Service will be working together on the investigation.