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Florida expands state of emergency to 3 counties affected by wildfires

By Claudia Dominguez and Paradise Afshar, CNN

Evacuation orders are still in place for about 600 homes in the Florida Panhandle as crews battle at least four dangerous wildfires, authorities said.

The Florida Forest Service said Sunday that nearly 10,000 acres are currently burning in the Panhandle. Additional resources have been deployed to help fight two major wildfires burning in Bay County, officials said.

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire, which is the largest of the two wildfires, has burned 8,000 acres and is only about 10% contained, officials said in a news release.

As of Sunday night, DeSantis said the Bertha Swamp Road Fire continues to burn and is “raging very quickly.”

“So as you go out and look at that, you know that’s a big boy, and it’s raging very quickly,” DeSantis said. “Today is the perfect day for these types of fires to move, unfortunately. You have very dry conditions, and you have a lot of wind. So we’ve had about 1,100 homes evacuated.”

DeSantis expanded a state of emergency on Saturday to include two more counties impacted by the fires. The governor’s decision amends an executive order — which declared a state of emergency in Bay County — to include Calhoun and Gulf counties.

“Right now, the main focus is, of course, is getting the fire contained, but we are marshaling assets and we will provide whatever the folks here in northwest Florida (need),” DeSantis said Saturday.

The forest service said in a tweet that more than 12,000 acres have been burned by wildfires across the state. The service’s Chipola Forestry Center tweeted that high winds have caused “significant growth” to fires, and evacuations are underway for some residents.

Bay County fire stemmed from burning trash

The Bay County fire, which started Friday, is 30% contained, the forest service said in a news release.

Around 600 homes have been evacuated, authorities said. The forest service said two homes have been destroyed and 12 more damaged.

The cause of the fire is under investigation and a burn ban has been issued for Bay County, officials said. At a news conference Friday, Bay County Sheriff Tom Ford said the fire started when someone was burning trash in their backyard and the flames got out of hand.

Bay County Emergency Services Chief Brad Monroe said at Saturday’s news conference the size and force of the fire was “hard to describe.”

Authorities noted fuel in the form of dead trees on the ground and leftover debris from 2018’s Hurricane Michael, along with low humidity and strong winds, contributed to the fire’s intensity.

Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, “left 2.8 million acres of trees broken, uprooted,” state Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried told reporters Saturday.

“These added fuels and dense pockets of vegetation from Hurricane Michael increased the intensity of wildfires,” Fried said.

Fried also implored residents not to burn trash or yard waste in their backyards.

Florida Disaster and Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie confirmed multiple state agencies are working on the fire.

“The Florida National Guard is bringing in crews to activate up to four helicopters should we need that asset,” Guthrie added, saying two strike teams are on standby.

Residents evacuated Friday are not allowed back in their homes, Ford told reporters Saturday. Shelters are available and allow pets.

Bay County has about 175,000 permanent residents in its 748 square miles. Panama City, a major tourist destination, is its largest city.

Other fires burning across Florid panhandle

Two other fires are also burning across the Florida panhandle.

The Adkins Avenue Fire near Panama City Beach is currently 841 acres and is 35% contained, DeSantis said Sunday.

Bay County Florida Emergency Services said on its Facebook page Sunday “there is a new fire south of Tram Road and west of Star Ave.” The fire is approximately 200 acres and 10% contained, according to the post.

“Evacuations are underway for the Clifford Chester Sims State Veterans Nursing Home. Bay County Transit is assisting,” the post read.

DeSantis also discussed resources deployed to help with the wildfires. He noted some of first responders had suffered injuries.

“We’ve got four National Guard air assets: two Black Hawks and two Chinooks. They are working, and they have a positive impact,” DeSantis said.

Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said the situation is dynamic and changing very quickly.

“Last night, we had to initiate an evacuation in the area of Bear Creek that was due to the fire up there moving closely. We’ve had to initiate some additional evacuations today due to a fire in the area of Tram Road,” Ford said, adding crews are “still fighting that as we speak.”

Chief of Bay County Emergency Services Brad Monroe said his county’s situation remains serious and encouraged residents to heed evacuation orders.

“The Bertha Swamp Fire is now 9,000 acres,” Monroe said. “It is just hard to believe that something could be that big. If you fly around it, it is just incredible. it is hard to comprehend just how big, strong and fierce this fire is, and the winds have been variable throughout the last few days. We expect that again tomorrow.”

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