PANAMA CITY — Magnolia Hills subdivision residents slowly trickled back into their neighborhood Monday evening after being evacuated since Friday as the Adkins Avenue Fire threatened their neighborhood.
Wildfires tore through Bay County over the weekend, forcing more than 1,100 homes to be evacuated. In the Magnolia Hills neighborhood alone, two homes were destroyed and 12 were damaged.
As residents received the alert that it was safe to return Monday afternoon, they held their breath as they drove back to the houses they were forced to leave behind.
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It was bittersweet for Ricardo Betancourt, who returned home Monday night.
Betancourt and his family went to stay at Hiland Park Baptist Church, which opened its doors to the residents. They then moved on to the Marriott for a few days to give space to those who needed it more.
While his house didn’t sustain any damage, seeing the damage to the neighborhood he has grown to love and admire was heartbreaking.
“Thankful that my home is not damaged, but your heartfelt prayers have to go out to them who lost all that ’cause it’s going to take time to rebuild that and who knows, a lot of times mentally you might be scarred in seeing that,” Betancourt said. “And you might not want to move back into that area, maybe it gets rebuilt, and they sell it, but we hope they come back.”
For Ordavion McChristian, it was a blessing to see his house still standing Monday night. Located on Whitehead Boulevard, McChristian was one house away from Jackie and Rick Wilkie, whose house was completely destroyed.
“Just feel blessed,” McChristian said. “I guess God wrapped his loving arms around us in our house and stuff like that because … it’s just nerve breaking.”
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The side of McChristian’s home was burned, and they lost the fencing around the backyard, a palm tree, the well and some roof shingles. The family dog also died due to heatstroke.
McChristian, who is serving at Tyndall Air Force Base, and his family have been in a condo since Friday. He was able to pop back home to get some items, but the family has been stressed waiting for the nightmare to be over. This is his first home that he and his wife purchased.
“I was actually panicking, thinking that we lost everything,” McChristian said. “This is theoretically our first home that we purchased, so it’s kind of sentimental.”
For some, it was the first time seeing their home since they had left it, like for resident Norris Campbell. The 90-year-old was at home with his wife when law enforcement knocked on his door to help him get to an evacuation area.
“From there, my daughter and son-in-law got a room, and he was retired military,” Campbell said. “He got a room, separate room at the base. So then, from there we took it to the base and I think it was four days we stayed there.”
Coming back to their home Monday night, Campbell said he felt a mix of emotions, but overall he was just grateful to still be alive, saying you can replace items but not lives.
As for damage, Campbell’s home lost the fencing in the backyard and the grass was burned in the backyard and side.
Campbell lives next to a home that burned down two years ago in a house fire, and he prays no one in the neighborhood will ever go through this again.
Betancourt sympathizes with the neighborhood, which has been through a lot in the past five years. However, he said, the neighbors have already banded together throughout this entire experience to help one another.
“A lot of them, like (resident) Troy Brown, would park up at the front, give rides to people in the back here. We all looked out for each other one day,” Betancourt said. “(As) a matter of fact, trash day was Monday and somebody from the neighborhood came out and put everybody’s trash out. So, you came in the neighborhood and all the trash was at the front, we don’t know who did it. We just know it was one of the neighbors.”
McChristian said last week was crazy, especially seeing all the smoke and the aftermath. He said now seeing the houses of his neighbors, he expresses his condolences and offers any help.
“Just want to ask everybody (to) pray for the two families that lost everything,” McChristian said. “It was really nerve-racking for them, just wish them luck and we’re here for support.”
From all of this, Betancourt said these last few years have been such a lesson for him. While tough lessons, the 22-year military veteran said he knows he has gained a lot of strength and knowledge and will continue to help others, especially those in his community.
“I never thought, especially after Hurricane Michael, that we would be going through something like this, and then so quickly, like when are we going to catch a break?” Betancourt said. “I feel God has given me all these stories to be able to share about resiliency because we’ve gone through Hurricane Michael, COVID-19 and now, this fire.”