• Fri. Sep 22nd, 2023


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Wildfires in Florida Panhandle Are a ‘Beast,’ Official Says

Three sweeping wildfires that started last week in the Florida Panhandle have burned more than 29,000 acres and are threatening surrounding communities amid dry and windy weather, the authorities said Tuesday.

The blazes, which are collectively called the Chipola Complex, are being fed by dead trees and other vegetation left by Hurricane Michael in 2018, fire officials said.

“This is a living, breathing beast,” Brad Monroe, the chief of emergency services in Bay County, said Tuesday during a news conference. “When it produces its own weather, you see lightening strikes within a fire on a bright sunny day, it’s incredible. Words cannot describe it.”

The largest blaze in the Chipola Complex, the Bertha Swamp Road fire, was more than 28,000 acres in size and was 10 percent contained, according to a Tuesday evening news release from the Florida Forest Service. The fire is centered about 60 miles west of Tallahassee.

“It is a life taker,” Jimmy Patronis, the state fire marshal, said during the news conference, adding that residents should not take chances. No deaths or injuries have been reported.

Gusty winds on Tuesday caused erratic fire behavior that prompted additional evacuation orders for parts of Calhoun County, officials said.

The two other Chipola Complex fires — the Adkins Avenue and Star Avenue fires — have combined to burn a little over a thousand acres and are each about 80 percent contained, officials said. Evacuation orders for those fires were lifted.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said during the news conference on Tuesday that the state was working to provide $6.1 million to help families affected by the fires.

“This whole area has been through a lot in the past three years, starting with Hurricane Michael,” he said. “We need to make sure that they are able to take care of themselves as they take care of others.”

Mr. DeSantis also warned residents not to ignore evacuation orders, adding that so far two homes have been destroyed and others were damaged.

“These fires are moving very quickly and it’s not something you can just wait and then all of a sudden bail at the last minute,” he said. “Nobody wants to tell someone to leave their home.”

Fire officials said more than 70 tractor-plow units and 10 aircrafts, including three Florida National Guard Black Hawk helicopters, were working to suppress the wildfires.

Parts of northwest Florida will see an active weather pattern over the next few days, with the possibility for tornadoes, the National Weather Service said. Severe storms were expected Wednesday, and more storms with heavy rainfall could hit the area on Friday.

“While the weather forecast in the coming days calls for the possibility of rain, it will not be enough to decrease the wildfire threat any time soon — especially in the Hurricane Michael-impact area,” the Florida Forest Service said.

While wildfires have routinely ravaged parts of the American West, that threat could be making its way east.