Firefighters continue battling fires in Florida Panhandle

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN 09 May 2020, 12:00AM

MILTON, Fla. (AP) — Florida firefighters were working to hold containment lines around a 2,000-acre (809-hectare) fire in the state's Panhandle, where winds were expected to shift Friday and push it toward homes.

The firebreak was about a half-mile from a neighborhood, officials said. While no evacuations have been issued, they urged residents to be ready to leave their homes should they be given the word to do so.

“People should be prepared and be ready,” said Ludie Bond, a spokeswoman for the Florida Forest Service.

Daniel Felder escaped flames Wednesday when the fire invaded his neighborhood near Milton, Florida, where fire crews were staging to combat the fire from a church parking lot.

Felder described a harrowing scene.

He recounted how the sky was glowing with sunlight, then grow dark as winds began to whip.

He stepped out into the road to watch the acrid smoke billow toward him. Ash started raining from the sky like light snow drifting in twilight.

Then came the crackle of fire, and he knew it was time to run.

“Next thing you know, the fire was right there,” said Felder, 45, recounting the minutes Wednesday afternoon when a raging fire swept through his bucolic wooded neighborhood.

Unable to flee, Felder and his landlord waded into a nearby pond until the fire passed.

The house was spared, but the fire took down a barn and turned the surrounding trees into a charred forest of blackened trunks.

On Friday, helicopter and tractor units continued to battle fires in the Panhandle that have forced hundreds of residents to flee, scorched thousands of acres and razed dozens of structures.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported that the 2,000-acre (809-hectare) fire in Santa Rosa County, just east of Pensacola, is 35% contained. That fire forced the evacuation of 1,100 homes Wednesday, though a few of those residents have been allowed to return to their homes.

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

A 575-acre (233-hectare) fire in Walton County prompted about 500 people to evacuate. Fire officials said it was 70% contained.

There have been no reports of injuries or deaths.

Officials said 13 homes were destroyed so far in the Santa Rosa fire dubbed the Five Mile Swamp Fire. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, some evacuees were sent to nearby hotels to avoid potential problems with crowding.

Sgt. Rich Aloy, with the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office, was patrolling Wednesday when he and other deputies rescued an older couple trapped by a burning power line. The possibly live wire blocked the two-lane, tree-lined road as smoke engulfed the area. Aloy said he and his deputies just happened upon the couple as they yelled for help.

“Right time, right place,” Aloy said.

The Santa Rosa County 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.

“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,” Bond had said.

On four different occasions, she said, the fire made a run for busy Interstate 10. Each time, it jumped the highway and pushed westward by gusts reaching 40 mph (64 kph).

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

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.

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN 09 May 2020, 12:00AM

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