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Thousands of acres near Panama City are torched as Florida Panhandle wildfires continue

By Raja Razek and Travis Caldwell, CNN

With nearly 1,100 homes evacuated, firefighting crews continue to battle several dangerous wildfires across three counties in the Florida Panhandle, officials said.

The most prominent blaze, the Bertha Swamp Road Fire, expanded over the weekend and was at 14,000 acres Monday evening, up from 9,000 on Sunday, with just 10% of it contained, according to a news release from the Florida Forest Service.

“The fire continues to show extreme activity as steady winds push the fire through thick, dry, and dead trees and vegetation left behind from Hurricane Michael,” the statement said.

The fire, which originated in Gulf County, has spread into neighboring Bay and Calhoun counties just east of Panama City, a popular tourist destination, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded a state of emergency Saturday to include all three 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.

There is no timeline as to when residents will be allowed to return home, according to a release from the Florida Forest Service.

Another fire even closer to Panama City, the Adkins Avenue fire in Bay County, was 50% contained and all evacuation orders had been lifted by Monday, FFS said. Two homes have been destroyed and 12 more were damaged by the blaze.

Damage from a 2018 hurricane was hampering the firefighting.

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

“The blowdown timber from Michael makes it very difficult to fight wildfires in our area,” Bay County Emergency Services said in a statement. “Fires that would normally be contained quickly grow rapidly as there is so much fuel on the ground.”

More materials arrive to combat the flames

Additional resources have been brought to the area to combat the fires, DeSantis said, noting some 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 Sunday. Crews have dropped more than 103,000 gallons of water on the Adkins Avenue fire since Friday, officials said.

“Firefighters and emergency personnel are working around the clock to help fire suppression efforts, including seven aircraft,” Bay County Emergency Services said on Monday afternoon.

“Additionally, a strike team of heavy bulldozers is focusing on building fire lines and defensible space around the communities near Bear Creek,” the agency said.

The situation on the ground remains dynamic and changes are called for very quickly, Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said Sunday.

“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.” The evacuation order remained in effect late Monday.

Ford said the Bay County Jail is “not in immediate danger, but we do have a very robust plan in place” and will have buses on “standby should that (evacuation) become necessary.”

An additional fire in the area, the Star Avenue Fire, was at 250 acres Monday and 60% contained. A veterans nursing home in the area had been evacuated because of it, FFS said, but all evacuations have been lifted.

No houses or other structures were damaged by the Star Avenue Fire, according to the agency.

Investigators are working to determine the cause of the fire and a burn ban has been issued for Bay County. There are currently 160 wildfires burning more than 18,500 acres throughout Florida, FFS said.

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CNN’s Tina Burnside, Claudia Dominguez and Paradise Afshar contributed to this report.

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