PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Florida firefighters and emergency workers are still battling two massive wildfires Sunday that have burned thousands of acres and forced over 1,000 evacuations in an area of the Florida Panhandle that was still recovering from the destruction caused by a Category 5 hurricane more than three years ago
As of Sunday afternoon, the 9,000-acre Bertha Swamp Road fire is 10% contained and growing, while the 840-acre Adkins Avenue fire is 35% contained and has shrunk from its largest size of 1,400 acres.
The Adkins fire, believed to have been started by a homeowner burning trash that got out of control, destroyed two structures, and damaged another 12 homes late Friday. Officials said Saturday they were not aware of any damage caused by the Bertha fire, but it crept toward Bear Creek Sunday, threatening the community of 2,000 consisting of mostly elders.
In his second trip to Bay County this weekend, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a news conference Sunday afternoon that the Bertha Swamp Road fire is “a big boy and is raging very quickly.”
DeSantis said there are confirmed injuries to first responders fighting the fires.
“Today’s the perfect day for these types of fires to move, unfortunately, (because) you have very dry conditions, and you have a lot of wind,” DeSantis said. “We have deployed at the state level four firefighting engine strike teams (that) are assembled to support local firefighting resources … and they can do both structural and wildland protection.”
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A third fire broke out Sunday afternoon, which has grown from 40 to 163 acres as a result of high winds and dry weather conditions, the Florida Forest Service-Chipola said Sunday via Twitter. Evacuations are underway for the Clifford Chester Sims State Veterans Nursing Home.
‘One thing after the other’
Bay County was hit hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018, which was directly responsible for 16 deaths and about $25 billion in damage in the U.S., and left behind 72 million tons of destroyed trees that have provided fuel for the Bay County wildfires, according to the Florida Forest Service.
“After Hurricane Michael, you had a massive amount of this basically dried tinder that was left in its wake, and so these fires were something people have been discussing for many years now,” DeSantis said Saturday. “And so this was not a surprise given that was sitting there, and you have very low humidity and the winds, and so it’s been kind of a perfect storm.”
Like other families in the eastern Bay County area, Paul and Laurie Shuman were getting settled into a new residence after losing their home during Hurricane Michael in October 2018.
On Saturday, they were once again stifled with panic and uncertainty as they watched glimpses of their home go up in flames through ADT security camera system videos.
By the time the couple arrived as close to their home as they safely could — about a mile out — the home was charred to pieces, with only the garage door, part of the brick frame, and the frame to the pool covering still standing. They lost everything.
“When you talk about starting over, there’s starting over and then there’s starting from the beginning. In three years, I’ve lost two houses,” Paul Shuman said, adding he also lost his job in that time period after the county closed the incinerator at which he had worked for 25 years. “It’s one thing after the other.”
Local authorities said they didn’t know when residents would be able to return to their homes.
“It is NOT safe to return home at this time. Please be patient as first responders battle these dangerous fires,” Bay County officials posted online.
There are nearly 150 wildfires burning more than 12,100 acres throughout Florida, the Florida Forest Service said in a Sunday news release.
Contributing: The Associated Press