PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Huge wildfires in the Florida Panhandle forced veterans of a retirement home to evacuate Sunday alongside residents of more than 1,000 homes in an area still recovering from a Category 5 hurricane three years ago.
Firefighters battled the 9,000-acre (about 3,642 hectares) Bertha Swamp Road Fire and the 841-acre (340 hectares) Adkins Avenue Fire, which threatened homes and forced residents of at least 1,100 homes in Bay County, Florida to flee over the weekend. The Adkins Avenue Fire destroyed two structures and damaged 12 other homes Friday night.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called the world’s largest Bertha Swamp Road fire a “big boy,” at a news conference in Panama City on Sunday afternoon. “It’s going very fast.”
A third fire broke out on Sunday, forcing the evacuation of a 120-bed state-run nursing home in Panama City. Public transit was used to move residents from the Clifford Chester Sims State Veterans’ Nursing Home. Buses were also on standby in case the 1,300 inmates at the nearby Bay County Jail needed to be evacuated to other facilities.
Hurricane Michael in 2018 left behind 72 million tons of destroyed trees that fueled the Bay County wildfires, according to the Florida Forest Service. The hurricane was directly responsible for 16 deaths and approximately $25 billion in damage in the United States
Local authorities say they do not know when residents will be able to return home. The county opened a shelter at Bay County Fairgrounds for displaced residents.
“I know there’s been frustration with people not being able to go home,” Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said. “But we had things that popped up on the minute that really caused problems. As soon as we can, we’ll let people in.
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 as of Sunday. Fire officials initially said it was 1,400 acres (567 hectares), but adjusted the size down Sunday afternoon.
The much larger Bertha Swamp Fire started Friday in neighboring Gulf County but spread to Bay and Calhoun counties Saturday, forcing the evacuation of dozens more homes. It was 10% contained on Sunday.
“It’s just hard to believe anything could be this big,” said Bay County Emergency Services Chief Brad Monroe. “If you fly around, it’s just amazing. It is difficult to comprehend how big, strong and fierce this fire is.
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 the fire lines. Firefighters from across Florida were deployed to the county to battle the blazes.
“Unfortunately, what we have today is almost a carbon copy of yesterday’s weather,” Florida Forest Service spokesman Joe Zwierzchowski said Sunday morning. “We are looking at high, sustained winds of 10 to 15 (16 to 24 kilometers) miles per hour, with gusts of up to 20 to 25 miles (32 to 40 kilometers) per hour. So that’s going to make it a very dynamic situation.
Currently, nearly 150 wildfires are burning more than 12,100 acres (about 4,900 hectares) across Florida, and the state is only in the very early stages of its wildfire season.
“It’s incredibly dry across the state and we typically see this kind of activity during April and May,” Zwierzchowski said. “Seeing it in early March really gives us an indication of what fire season will be like.”
Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida and Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.