Hundreds evacuated as wildfires rage in Florida Panhandle

In this image made from video taken May 6, 2020 by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, fire and smoke rise from trees alongside a road in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Wildfires raging in the Florida Panhandle have forced nearly 500 people to evacuate from their homes, authorities said. (Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services via AP)

MILTON, Fla. (AP) — Firefighters in the Florida Panhandle continued battling an erratic fire Thursday that had scorched thousands of acres of woods, razed dozens of homes and forced some 1,600 people to evacuate from their neighborhoods.

A stretch of Interstate 10, northern Florida’s main transportation artery, remained closed in both directions near Pensacola because of smoke.

Gov. Ron DeSantis met with emergency officials at a church parking lot in Milton, which was turned into staging area, in Santa Rosa County for an hour Thursday before returning to the state capital of Tallahassee, located about 180 miles east.

The fire was feeding on stands of pines in forests strewn with dry needles.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a news conference Thursday afternoon that fire officials are working around the clock to contain the wildfires.

“The threat is far from over and there is no rain forecasted,” Fried said. She asked residents to stay alert and “be ready for a wildfire impacting their neighborhood.”

In Santa Rosa County, which is just east of Pensacola, a 2,000-acre fire resulted in 1,100 homes being evacuated Wednesday. Officials said a few of those residents, in areas south of Interstate 10 have been allowed to return to their homes. The others were not yet being allowed to return.

That fire began Monday when a prescribed burn by a private contractor got out of control, Fried said. The conditions created a perfect storm for fire – low humidity and high winds.

“The weather is really what will make the difference,” said Ludie Bond, a spokeswoman for the Florida Forest Service. “In Florida, when we’re seeing the gusty winds, it’s hurricane season, not necessarily fire season. So the recipe was just right for this fire to make a huge run.”

On four different occasions, she said, the fire made a run for busy Interstate 10, the main traffic artery in northern Florida. Each time, it jumped the freeway and fanned westward by gusts reaching 40 mph (about 64 kph).

Firefighters were expecting winds to shift and pick up on Friday, adding to the fire’s erratic behavior.

Officials have confirmed 13 homes were destroyed so far in the fire dubbed the Five Mile Swamp Fire.

In a place accustomed to hurricanes, officials said many residents were ready to flee when given the word — although scores of people stayed behind, water hoses in hand, to stand against the fire.

Crews from other areas of Florida, including Jacksonville, are assisting firefighters who’ve been working long hours since Monday.

In neighboring Walton County, a 575-acre fire in Walton County prompted about 500 people to evacuate. Authorities there said multiple structures were lost in the fire, which was 65% contained Thursday morning. Fried said about 33 structures have been damaged so far.

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said during a Wednesday night news conference that those who were asked to leave their home but had no place to go were sent to South Walton High School.

Almost all of Florida has had less-than-usual rainfall this year. National Weather Service meteorologist Jack Cullen told the Tampa Bay Times the dryness helped fuel the fires Wednesday. Cullen, who is based in Mobile, Alabama, said the wind is the real culprit.

“What made this (fire) today was the wind, to go along with the dry conditions and low humidity,” Cullen said of the fire near Pensacola.

There have been no reports of injuries or deaths.

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