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Bay County residents warned to remain vigilant as crews work to contain growing wildfire

A firefighter and law enforcement officers look at the blaze from the Adkins Avenue Fire while evacuating a neighborhood on Friday, March 4, 2022.
Bay County Emergency Services
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A firefighter and law enforcement officers look at the blaze from the Adkins Avenue Fire while evacuating a neighborhood on Friday, March 4, 2022.

State and local officials are warning Bay County residents to remain vigilant as crews work to contain a growing 1400-acre wildfire that has destroyed at least two homes and damaged more than a dozen others.

“After Hurricane Michael, you had a massive amount of this basically dry timber that was left in its wake,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking at a press conference in Panama City on Saturday. “These fires were something that people have been discussing for many years now. This is not a surprise given that this is just sitting there.”

The community has called it the “Adkins Avenue Fire.” Local officials say it began to spread on Friday morning after a resident’s backyard fire got out of control.

More than 200 firefighters from across the Panhandle — including 70 from the Florida Forestry Service — have been working to put out the blaze. The fire is 30% contained. “It’s not fully contained by any stretch, but they have made a huge difference already,” DeSantis said.

A mandatory evacuation order remains in effect for neighborhoods southeast of Transmitter Road and Highway 231. Hundreds of homes have been evacuated. The county has opened a pet-friendly shelter at the Bay County Fairgrounds.

Adkins Avenue Fire Mandatory Evacuation Map
Panama City Government
Adkins Avenue Fire Mandatory Evacuation Map

“We just cannot risk right now letting people back into these areas because we don’t need to get complacent,” said Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford. “The humidity will be dropping throughout the day and the winds will be increasing.”

Firefighters and first responders have been working since the fire began to protect homes in the area, Ford said.

“Let there be no doubt there were hundreds of homes that were saved due to their valiant efforts,” Ford said. “This is a very dangerous situation, a fast-moving wildfire. The fire was coming over the tops of trees into this neighborhood as deputies and officers were evacuating these neighborhoods.”

A burn ban is in effect for the entire county. County Emergency Services Chief Brad Monroe explained that residents should avoid even grilling outdoors.

“We have the high winds and low humidity,” Monroe said. “It’s the perfect scenario for another fire like we had yesterday.”

The state’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is urging residents who have been ordered to seek shelter to call their insurance agents and let them know that their property is at risk of fire damage. “Pick up the phone and give them a call,” Patronis said. “Tell them, Hey I’ve been evacuated from my home because there’s a forest fire. There’s a chance I might need to file a claim. Are you doing any pre-event claims?’”

“All this is going to do is speed up the claims process,” he said. “It’s not just your homeowners’ insurance. If you’ve got a car that you left in your garage and you evacuated, that car could be damaged, call your car insurance.”

Patronis also urges residents to call the state’s insurance consumer hotline at 1-877-693-5236 if they need help with the claims process.

Residents are also urged to sign up for Alert Bay to receive the latest updates about the fire.

Since Hurricane Michael created millions of acres of tree debris more than three years ago, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has worked to clear it to reduce the risk of wildfire, said Mike Mathis, Florida Forest Service manager for the Chipola field unit. An estimated 30% of the timber has been cleaned up across Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Walton and Washington Counties, he said. “We still have a lot of stuff on the ground.”

When a reporter asked why more prescribed burning hasn’t taken place in the last three years, Mathis explained that it’s risky to conduct prescribed burns in areas where there’s so much debris.

“We can’t put a line around it to prescribe burn it in a safe manner. There’s just too much fuel on the ground. It doesn’t really accomplish much,” Mathis said. “It just burns really fast and still leaves the big stuff on the ground.”

Mathis says they’ve focused most of their efforts on preventative measures, including warning residents to avoid burning anything outdoors during the state’s wildfire season, which runs from March to June.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried also spoke at the press conference in Panama City. She warned residents to avoid burning anything without a permit from the department.

“Please, please, please do not burn in your backyards,” said Fried said. “We know that wild fire threat is here. With weather conditions increasing, this is going to be something that’s on high alert from now until end of June to beginning of July.”

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.