Norman Ferguson said he’s just thankful to be alive after a fire to burn some leaves got out of hand Wednesday and turned his backyard into an inferno.
“I’m really thankful for everything because you could be here one minute and gone the next,” said the 75-year-old Vietnam War veteran. “I’m appreciative of every breath I get to take.”
On Wednesday around 4 p.m., a controlled burn at the 5600 block of Sallee Avenue in Oakwood got “out of hand” and spread to a home, nearby vehicles and an RV, according to Hall County Fire Services.
“The cause was ruled accidental after a debris fire became too large for the resident to control,” said fire spokesman Bobby Ogletree.
“The wind come up along about that time, and before I could get my hoses strung out like it needs to be at the other end of the building, it was too late, I had to call 911,” Ferguson said. “I had a little old bunch of leaves I was burning around — they wasn’t even in the barrel. I was just burning around the edge of the barrel just for a few minutes.”
Ogletree said Ferguson did not have a burn permit, but their “records show no history of burn violations for the address.”
A permit is required to conduct an outdoor burn of any sort, he said. Permits are based on forecasted weather conditions. They last for one day only and can be revoked if the weather changes or burning activities are found to be outside the permitted guidelines.
“It was a very windy day, and he probably could have used better judgment,” Ogletree said. But Ferguson will not face any repercussions because they don’t want to “add insult to injury.”
Neighbor Bobby Parker, who lives two houses down, said Ferguson frequently burns things.
“They always burn a little bit of stuff up there,” he said.
Wendy Porter, who said she was hired through a veteran affairs agency as Ferguson’s caretaker seven years ago, said she warned against it Wednesday.
“I told him not to,” Porter said. “Every time he does burn, he usually gets a permit, but they would have said no and he knew that.”
She and Ferguson are longtime friends, she said, and she moved into a camper on his property a month ago, “because we realized he can't be alone.”
“He’s not a well man,” she said, adding that he has dementia, a chronic lung disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was the scariest thing I've ever been through in my life, and I woke up this morning and was like, ‘Was that a dream or did it really happen?’”
She said about 15 car batteries exploded at the back of the house.
“It was like fireworks,” she said. “That was when it got bad, bad. That's when people from the whole neighborhood just started piling up here because they heard it.”
Tanya Hall, who lives across the street, said she arrived shortly after the fire began but worried that it would spread.
“It scared me because I thought, ‘Is that going to spread to my house,’” she said.
No injuries were reported, and Porter said all of their animals — two dogs, six cats, a parakeet and a flock of chickens — are safe.
She said Ferguson is a junk collector, but he did lose some valuable items, including $4,000 worth of fresh lumber, a collection of old baseball cards and vinyl records “worth a lot of money.”
Ferguson hasn’t even ventured into the backyard to see the devastation, she said, adding that he doesn’t have home insurance.
Georgia’s statewide burn ban begins May 1 and lasts through Sept. 30.