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Bay County evacuations expand as third wildfire pops up

The Bertha Swamp Road fire began on Friday morning in Gulf County and pushed into Calhoun and Bay Counties on Saturday, March 5, 2022.
Bay County Emergency Services
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The Bertha Swamp Road fire began on Friday morning in Gulf County and pushed into Calhoun and Bay Counties on Saturday, March 5, 2022.

Update 8:34 p.m. CST: A third wildfire in Bay County that broke out Sunday afternoon has grown.

As of 7 p.m., a fire that broke out at around two o'clock in the afternoon had grown to more than 200 acres and was 10% contained. Bay County Emergency Services officials have named it the Star Avenue Fire. About an hour after the fire started, it was about 25-30 acres and 45% contained. Officials say they're still investigating the cause of the blaze.

Local police and sheriff's deputies help transport wheelchairs and medical equipment for nursing home residents who were evacuated on Sunday.
Local police and sheriff's deputies help transport wheelchairs and medical equipment for nursing home residents who were evacuated on Sunday.

When the Star Avenue Fire began, crews moved from the Adkins Avenue Fire to the new blaze, according to local emergency management officials. But the winds fanned the flames and the fire began to spread more quickly.

Officials say more than 90 residents and staff at a veteran's nursing home have been evacuated to the fairgrounds, where a pet-friendly shelter has been set up for evacuees. Residents of the Clifford Chester Sims Veterans Administration Nursing Home, at 4419 Tram Rd. in Panama City, were taken to the shelter or nearby hospital. The nursing home is in the Star Avenue Fire's mandatory evacuation zone.

3-4-22 Adkins Road Fire 4p (1).jpg
Florida Forest Service
The Star Avenue Fire in Bay County started at 2 p.m. on Sunday and has expanded since it broke out.

More than 1,100 Bay County residents have been placed under a mandatory evacuation order, according to the Florida Forest Service. There have been no reported deaths or injuries among the public as a result of the fires.

As of 7 p.m., the Adkins Avenue fire was down to approximately 861 acres and 35% contained, the Florida Forest Service reports. The Bertha Swamp Road fire remained at 9,000 acres and 10% contained. Wildfire officials are now calling it the two fires the "Chipola Complex" because they're burning so close together, creating what's known as a complex.

Wildfire officials are seeing "some spotting," said Mike Mathis, center manager for the Florida Forest Service's Chipola Forestry Center. He says spotting is when a wind-carried ember "falls onto unburned ground and starts a new fire." He says firefighters are quickly putting out those smaller fires or "spots" when they start.

And we're seeing spotting about a quarter to a half a mile."

"This is a very quick-moving fire," Mathis said, referring to the larger Bertha Swamp Road Fire. "It's wind-driven.

He says on Saturday morning it was around 2,000 acres in Gulf County. As of Sunday afternoon, it was burning in three counties and had grown to 9,000 acres.

Mathis says that no residents in Calhoun or Gulf Counties live close enough to the fire to come under an evacuation order. "It's all private timberland."

"I'm looking forward to rain coming in Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to slow this thing down," he said. But weather conditions through Tuesday are expected to remain dry and windy, much like over the last few days since the fires began.

Three schools in Bay County are closed on Monday due to wildfires nearby. They include Tommy Smith Elementary, Merritt Brown Middle School and Waller Elementary. All other schools will remain open.

Update 5:20 p.m. CST: Three wildfires are now raging in Bay County as firefighters from across the state work to contain the blazes.

All three fires have put neighborhoods in the eastern part of the county under mandatory evacuation orders.

The latest fire popped up at about 2 p.m. central time near Tram Road in the Callaway area. The fire was about 25-30 acres at 3 p.m. and was 45% contained, said Joe Zwierzchowski, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service. Bay County Sheriff's deputies are working to evacuate residents in the area, including a nursing home.

Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford gave a list of areas that are now under mandatory evacuation orders:

  • Bylsma Estates
  • Cedar Park
  • College Station
  • Pipeline Road to the dead end
  • Springfield east of Transmitter Road
  • Bear Creek from Scotts Ferry Road South
  • East of Highway 231 in neighborhoods along South Bear Creek Road
  • Tram Road from 15th Street to Star Avenue
  • Star Avenue from Knee-high Avenue to Pittsburgh Avenue

Residents are urged to sign up for Alert Bay and monitor the Bay County Emergency Services Facebook page for the latest updates.
An interactive map that shows the approximate location of the fires is also live.

As of Sunday evening, the largest wildfire — the Bertha Swamp Road fire — had grown to approximately 9,000 acres from 8,000 acres in the morning. "That's a big boy," said Gov. Ron DeSantis during a press conference Sunday afternoon. "It's raging very quickly."

Some firefighters have been injured while working to contain the fires, but that number was not reported.

Original story: "We're looking at high sustained winds," said Joe Zwierzchowski, with the Florida Forest Service during a Facebook live update on Sunday morning. "Unfortunately what we have going on today is almost a carbon copy of yesterday's weather." The National Weather Service reports south-southeast wind speeds of 15-20 mph for the Panama City area on Sunday.

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect for residents who live in the area between Transmitter Road and Star Avenue and south of Highway 231 to Tyndall Parkway.

Residents who live in the Bear Creek area, south of Scotts Ferry Road and east of Highway 231 are also under a mandatory evacuation order.

Mandatory evacuations remain in effect as crews work to contain two wildfires in Bay County.
Bay County Government
Mandatory evacuations remain in effect as crews work to contain two wildfires in Bay County.

Twenty-five bulldozers and numerous fire trucks are working to contain the Adkins Avenue fire, which is still 1,400 acres and 35% contained, Zwierchowski said. That's slightly more contained than it was on Saturday when it was 30% contained.

The Bertha Swamp Road fire began in Gulf County on Friday morning, growing from 3,000 acres to 8,000 acres and pushing into Calhoun and Bay Counties. That fire forced residents in the Bear Creek area to evacuate. That fire is 10% contained, Zwierchowski said.

"The Bertha Swamp Road fire is very active this morning," he said. "We do expect a very big day and significant growth on that fire."

A pet-friendly shelter is open at the Bay County Fairgrounds, at 2230 E. 15th St. Residents who plan to bring animals are urged to call 850-248-6090 ahead of time.

"We understand that everyone is anxious to go back home," said Bay County Public Information Officer Valerie Sale. "This has been a huge inconvenience."

Sale says more help has arrived in the county. Firefighters and equipment from all over the state, including Jacksonville, Hernando, Orange and Pasco Counties, along with crews from across the Panhandle are working to help contain the fires, Sale said. The national guard has also been deployed to help.

"We've had a huge influx of assistance coming in to help us," Sale said. "This is a tremendous effort on the part of our federal, state and local governments."

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.