OKEECHOBEE — A local veteran and her family are struggling to rebuild after a fire destroyed their wood home on Cemetery Road Saturday night. On April 24 around 10 p.m., Melissa Johnson-Martinez’ youngest child, a 5-year-old with autism, was the first to realize something was wrong. He went in to tell one of his sisters there was smoke in one of the bedrooms, and she followed him back to see what was going on. She discovered a fire. The young boy had attempted to put the fire out by piling clothing on top of it, but had been unsuccessful.
Johnson-Martinez tried to extinguish the fire using water and received minor burns on her right side. At that point, the fire was too much for the family to combat and they had to evacuate. The entire family was in the house when the fire started, including Johnson-Martinez, her husband Juan, four children, two dogs, four puppies and two ferrets. Unfortunately, the four puppies and two ferrets did not make it out of the house.
The fire destroyed all of the bedrooms and reached out to the kitchen. What was not destroyed by fire was destroyed by water when firefighters put the fire out. The home is now completely unlivable and will most likely have to be torn down and rebuilt, said close friend Halle Baker. “All the walls are gone inside the house.”
The fire marshal told the family if they had been asleep, they likely would not have made it out alive.
At this time, the family is staying with relatives while they try to find a place to live. They owned the home, but did not have insurance on it when the fire happened.
Johnson-Martinez graduated from Okeechobee High School and served in the United States Army from 1999 until 2008. She had a home-based business, Honeybell Customs, making t-shirts and other things using a Cricut machine which was destroyed in the fire.
Juan Martinez is orignally from New York and works at Walmart.
Some of the children attend Okeechobee Christian Academy, and the school has offered to accept donations on the family’s behalf. The oldest child in the family is a senior this year and will be graduating from OCA next month. Donations can also be made at Shirley’s Personal Care located behind O’Reilly’s Auto Parts Store. 200 Southeast Third Street. There is also a GoFundMe set up which can be found by searching for “Help Melissa and family with fire recovery.”
The family believes the fire was caused by an electrical issue.