One year ago today, the Mussett Bayou wildfire destroyed homes and changed lives

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SANTA ROSA BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — In a flash, homes were destroyed and lives were upended one year ago today when the massive Mussett Bayou wildfire started in Walton County.

On the afternoon of May 6, 2020, first responders with the South Walton Fire District (SWFD) received a call they did not want.

“The call came in late in the afternoon as an illegal burn,” SWFD Fire Marshal Sammy Sanchez said. “In just an instant… somebody’s backyard into 343 acres of wildland fire.”

The wildfire quickly became out of control.

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“We knew what the weather conditions could present, certainly not ever thinking that it was going to happen,” Fire Marshal Sanchez said.

The Walton County Sheriff’s Office responded shortly after.

“We first responded off of Mussett Bayou, and then as the fire progressed, we started moving south and southeast to try and get ahead of the fire as far as we could,” Lieutenant Dustin Cosson said.

That evening, residents across Santa Rosa Beach and the Mussett Bayou area were ordered to evacuate their homes.

In the face of fire

“The engine couldn’t get in and I couldn’t get out, so I had to find a subdivision and then make my way around,” Fire Marshal Sanchez said. “But as I was going around that subdivision, I was checking houses to make sure there was nobody there.”

By 9 p.m. it was reported that over 500 homes were evacuated, with the fire only 25 percent contained.

The wildfire had also jumped over Highway 98 and made it unsafe for drivers.

The next day, on May 7, the Walton County Sheriff announced they figured out the cause of the fire.

With the fire 65 percent contained, residents began to return to their properties to see the damage that day.

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Sadly, for many homeowners, their property had been destroyed.

“It’s hard because I have [the baby’s] ultrasounds and stuff like that, that just went up into flames,” new mother and resident Cassidy Clemenson said. “Those aren’t things you can replace, but it’s good still knowing that I have those memories.”

On May 8, two days after the start of the wildfire, it 70 percent contained.

Damage was assessed, and investigators found that 59 properties, 33 homes and over 340 acres of land were damaged or destroyed in the wildfire.

“You pride yourself as a firefighter at ‘look what you saved,’ and to see that many houses destroyed… it’s just hard,” Sanchez said.

On May 12, almost a week after the start of the fire, 58-year old Allen Boyd Smith was arrested and charged with reckless burning of land, burning illegal materials and an open burning violation, all of which are misdemeanors.

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The fire reportedly started in his backyard on Mussett Bayou Road in Santa Rosa Beach.

On May 22, over two weeks after the wildfire broke out, reports said the fire was 100 percent contained.

Smith pleaded not guilty on July 13. His jury trial is set for June 21 of this year.

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