Steve Godlewski wasn't afraid. In flip-flops and shorts, he grabbed a garden hose and started attacking.
The wildfire was moving toward his rural Florida Keys home. Coal-black smoke filled the air. Neighbors were nervous.
With the help of a couple friends, he sprayed hot spots for hours.
The Big Pine Key fire started around 2 p.m. on a Sunday, April 22 — and there was no way Godlewski was going to let the flames destroy his home.
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Godlewski, 46, lives with his wife and two small children, and he's pretty typical of the people here. He took matters into his own hands.
“He and his friends absolutely saved the house,” said his wife, Christine Dalton-Godlewski. “He was there for hours with three other guys at one point. Nine hours.”
While April's brush fire didn't touch the couple's home, it did touch plenty of nerves on this 9.8-square-mile key, mostly known for a federal deer refuge and a signpost for the hordes traveling to Key West.
For a straight week, the fire consumed the lives of the people who live on Big Pine, with many still trying to put their homes back together after Hurricane Irma.
Just last September, their rural enclave about a half-hour from the Southernmost City, was whipped by Irma, along with Little Torch, Summerland, Cudjoe and Sugarloaf Keys. Across unincorporated Monroe County, including Big Pine, more than 700 homes, not including mobile homes, were damaged by the storm.
Then came the fire. It burned from April 22-29. And it toyed with people still in recovery mode.
"It was almost a flashback from the storm," said DiAne Rullen, who lost her home and car to Hurricane Irma eight months ago.
During the tense week in April, firefighters from 10 agencies battled the blaze, including crews from Miami-Dade. Helicopters from the state dumped 800 gallons of water on burning brush. Neighbors watched warily, and despite their independent spirit, welcomed the help.
"OK, folks, the cavalry is here," Tommy Ryan said on the Facebook Live video he posted about three hours after the brush fire began. "It's about f---ing time."
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The Keys don't see many major wildfires, and the small fire departments that dot the island chain weren't equipped to handle something like this.
“We didn’t have the resources or equipment,” said Monroe County Fire Rescue Chief Jim Callahan. “We don’t have off-road firefighting equipment. We don’t have bulldozers or brush trucks."
The visiting crews helped prevent disaster. The fire did gut a house and a garage and put others at risk. But in the end, the people of Big Pine came together to defeat what could have been another blow to their community, one of the hardest hit areas of the hurricane.
One Big Pine homeowner, Chris Arsenault, is now homeless because of the fire. His 19th Street house was right next door to the Godlewski family.
"My house burnt to the ground in 10 minutes," Arsenault said.
Big Pine is home to 5,000 people. But it's not the kind of place tourists circle on their maps. While Key Largo gets the divers and Key West the drinkers, Big Pine is filled with retirees, workers, families. It lies about half an hour north of Key West, but is worlds away.
In this rural suburbia, the biggest action is at the Winn-Dixie and the Moose Lodge.
Not a lot of action goes on in this unincorporated swath of Monroe County, and that's plenty fine with the people who live in an area named for the pine trees that dot the key. But there's one thing that does go on.
"Everybody helps everybody," said Ellen Guilford. "People down here they don't look at material things. People are just happy to be living."
As flames roared across wooded areas on the fire's first day, Guilford and other Moose Lodge members sprang into action. They collected and delivered hamburgers and hot dogs and then grilled them up for the firefighters.
LIFE ON THE KEY
On Day Six of the brush fire, a group of Piners gathered at the Moose Lodge on Wilder Road. The entrance opens to a huge square-shaped wooden bar. Day drinking is welcomed.
Big Pine's biggest claim to fame rests with its smallest residents.
The mini Key deer, about the size of a large dog, roam free on a 9,000-acre refuge. They are federally protected, and the signs don't let you forget it, down to the strict speed limit on U.S. 1. (45 mph during the day and 35 mph at night) to keep them safer.
Amid the fire, one wayward deer ran toward the flames. An alert Monroe firefighter rescued the deer and helped move it to safer ground.
Big Pine offers a more affordable place to live in the Keys. Median house price is $439,000 (Key West is nearly $600,000 and Islamorada is more than $700,000). It's a place for the Key West workforce and retirees who want some space. Even the homeless have their pick of woods in which to live.
Even before the fire, Big Pine was still trying to recover from damage left by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10, 2017. People who lost their homes continue to live in tents or RVs, or have moved out of town.
"Irma is still a significant fact for 30 percent of the people who live on Big Pine," said Christine Dalton-Godlewski.
Although no one was injured, including the wildlife, the fire took a toll on the town. Residents waited in fear while firefighters extinguished stubborn hot spots. Dry conditions and strong winds turned the brush into a sprawling, dangerous swirls. In the end, the fire left 72 acres covered in gray ash.
The cause remains under investigation but officials say it wasn't lighting or an electrical spark that caused it. That could mean it was started by people.
"We heard explosions," said Guilford, who watched the brush fire grow from the Moose Lodge. "Propane tanks and other things."
The black smoke burned her eyes and throat.
"It was dangerous," she said. "Two of our members arrived to help our neighbors and helped them by watering down the yard, fence and one of the houses until the sheriff made them leave."
Moose members also climbed the lodge's roof to water it down.
A woman next door to the Moose lost at least one cat to the blaze, Guilford said.
The burned smell hung in the air for days and stumps smoldered, with flame licking the sides. Blocks of charred woods lined parts of Wilder Road and Key Deer Boulevard. In one corner of the mess, a faded red fire hose lay discarded on the ash, torn in two. A utility pole had fallen next to it, with its charred black stump still visible.
Through the devastation, a toughness ran through Big Pine. But there was sorrow.
Five months after Irma struck, a man and his wife attended a public meeting about hurricane recovery. Later at home, he fatally shot his wife before turning the gun on himself.
Leslie Arthur Weston, 53, and Arlene Mira Weston, 59, were found shortly after midnight in a trailer on Avenue D. Leslie called a friend to say he shot his wife at her request and that he intended to do the same to himself.
"We may cry privately," Guilford said.
Yet many Piners say they won't be chased away by wind or fire.
"You know why? We're Conchs!" said Tony Fletcher, outside the Moose Lodge. "You can't drown a Conch. Been here 16 years and I'm not going anywhere."
Tommy Ryan, a retired New York firefighter who was on the scene on Sept. 11, 2001, as the second tower of the World Trade Center collapsed in Lower Manhattan, says he saw it coming.
"I knew we were going to get fire," said Ryan, 58, who with his husband, Jon Baird, still lives in a trailer outside their hurricane-ruined home.
Dead trees, mangroves and other brush had stacked up after Irma. Ryan used Facebook Live to document the fire going on just outside his neighborhood, staying up through the night of the first day to keep tabs on the smoke and flames.
Recovery has been slow.
"We sat in debris here till the end of January," Ryan said. "When you're sitting in it, it's a God-awful long time to sit in debris."
Ryan hopes Monroe County will invest in a bulldozer and other equipment it didn't have when fire broke out. He lauds the firefighters for their seemingly endless days of work.
He also praises the Lower Keys for its staying power.
"The resilience of Big Pine and the other Keys seriously hit is astonishing."