Firefighters battle 2 massive wildfires in Florida Panhandle

Hector Rivera and Wandi Blanco put water on hotspots behind their home in Panama City, Fla., Saturday, March 5, 2022, following a wildfire that started Friday. The fire destroyed two homes next to them and melted the siding off of their home. (Mike Fender/News Herald via AP)
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Associated Press

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Firefighters and emergency workers battled two massive wildfires Sunday in an area of the Florida Panhandle that was still recovering from destruction caused by a Category 5 hurricane more than three years ago.

The 8,000-acre (about 3,237 hectare) Bertha Swamp Road fire and the 1,400-acre (567-hectare) Adkins Avenue fire threatened homes and forced the evacuation of residents of at least 750 homes in Bay County, Florida over the weekend. The Adkins Avenue fire destroyed two structures and damaged another 12 homes late Friday. Local emergency official said no homes were destroyed and there were no injuries on Saturday, the second day of battling the Adkins Avenue fire.

“No homes damaged. No injuries to residents or responders. Big win for Bay County!” Bay County emergency officials tweeted early Sunday.

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.

The county opened a shelter at the Bay County Fairgrounds for displaced residents.

“We understand and recognize that everyone is anxious to go back home, and that it has been a huge inconvenience,” said Valerie Sale, a Bay County spokeswoman.

The Adkins Avenue fire has been burning in Bay County since Friday, forcing the evacuation of at least 600 homes, and it was 35% contained Sunday morning. The much-larger Bertha Swamp Fire started in neighboring Gulf County on Friday but spread to Bay and Calhoun counties on Saturday, forcing the evacuation of another 150 homes. It was 10% contained as of Sunday morning.

Fire officials said Florida Forest Service helicopters had dropped more than 103,000 gallons (about 468,000 liters) of water on the Adkins Avenue fire since Friday, and 25 bulldozers had been deployed to plow fire lines.

“Unfortunately what we have going on today is almost a carbon copy of yesterday’s weather,” Joe Zwierzchowski, a spokesman for the Florida Forest Service, said Sunday morning. “We are looking at high, sustained winds of 10 to 15 (16 to 24 kilometers) miles per hour, gusting up to 20 to 25 miles (32 to 40 kilometers) per hour. So that’s going to make it a very dynamic situation.”

Hurricane Michael in 2018 was directly responsible for 16 deaths and about $25 billion in damage in the U.S., and it left behind 72 million tons of destroyed trees that have provided fuel for the Bay County wildfires, according to the Florida Forest Service.

Currently, there are nearly 150 wildfires burning more than 12,100 acres (about 4,900 hectares) throughout Florida, and the state is only at the very beginning of its wildfire season.

“It is incredibly dry throughout the state and typically we see this kind of activity in the months of April and May,” Zwierzchowski said. “Seeing it in early March really gives us an indication of what the fire season is going to be like.”