McRAE -- As the Telfair County sheriff's chief deputy, Johnny Smith has been on the scene numerous times as homes burned to the ground, but it was a different experience Friday as he watched his own house destroyed by fire.
"It was a terrible feeling," he said. "I can't explain it. I've always admired firefighters for what they do, but this time I just noticed how hard they were working and was scared they were going to get hurt. I had never really felt that way before."
Smith would often be the one to try to save what could be saved from a fire, but this time he owes a debt of gratitude to someone else. A passing motorist who stopped, before firefighters were on the scene, entered the home through a window to make sure no one was inside. The man, Arthur Treat, picked up a guitar that belonged to Smith's daughter, and that was the only item saved from the house. He also pushed Smith's lawn mower and four-wheeler away from the building, and he rescued a litter of puppies that were under the house.
"He's my hero," Smith said. "He just went above and beyond what anybody would be expected to do. He worked at it like it was his house. 'Thank you' just didn't seem like enough."
Because he is a deputy, fire marshals were called to make sure the fire wasn't arson, but they concluded a wiring problem in the roof caused the blaze. Smith said a close lightning strike the night before caused the lights to flicker off, and investigators theorized the strike may have caused the wiring problem.
The fire happened just after 3 p.m. Friday. A few minutes later and Smith's three young children would have been home from school. Smith had lived in the double-wide mobile home on U.S. 341 since 1987, and had renovated it. His insurance, he said, would probably be just about enough to replace the house, but not the family's belongings.
The community has already rallied to help the man who has helped others in time of need.
"We didn't have anything except what we were wearing," Smith said. "People have been giving us clothes. They have really been good."
Friends have also set up an account for the family at Merchants & Citizens Bank in McRae.