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Massive wildfire in three Northwest Florida counties doubles in size

BerthaSwampRoadFire Photo.jpeg
Florida Forest Service
The Bertha Swamp Road Fire rages overnight in three Northwest Florida counties on Monday, March 7, 2022.

Update at 4:33 CST: Crews working to contain wildfires in Bay County have made some progress on two of the fires this afternoon.

Both the Adkins Avenue Fire and the Star Avenue fire are 80% contained. The Adkins Avenue Fire is 875 acres. The Star Avenue fire is 250 acres.

Containment is when the fire is surrounded by ditches, creeks and other barriers that prevent it from spreading.

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire remains at 28,109 acres and is still only 10% contained, according to the Florida Forest Service. Crews are working to dig containment boundaries around neighborhoods in the Bear Creek area to protect those homes.

Emergency officials are evacuating Calhoun County residents who live in the Kinard community as the Bertha Swamp Road Fire continues to spread in the county.

Firefighters from Southwest Florida in Calhoun County.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Firefighters stationed on Scotts Ferry Road in Calhoun County prepare to douse one of the heads of the Bertha Swamp Road Fire as it continues to spread in the county.

Update 5:17 p.m. EST: As a massive wildfire continues to rage near Panama City and creeps across county lines, firefighters trying to hold it at bay could soon catch a break. Florida Public Radio Emergency Network Meteorologist Meghan Borowski says rain is on the way, as the Bertha Swamp Road Fire shows "increased activity."

When 2018’s Hurricane Michael slammed into the Forgotten Coast, it decimated nearly 3 million acres of forests in north Florida. A lot of that acreage is still on the ground and Bertha’s flames intersect with Michael’s path. It’s a perfect storm, Borowski said, noting the region has been in a drought lately, and it’s also been unseasonably warm.

"That’s helped to dry out all this debris and it's like having dry logs just ready to ignite," she said.

Two smaller fires burning in the area are well on their way to being contained, yet Bertha continues to rage. Now, Mother Nature is on her way to assist. Rain and a cold front are arriving soon.

“That’s going to combine and now the other extreme—we’re watching the potential for flash flooding just because it’s such a quick onset of these heavy rains," Borowski said.

The Bay County Sheriffs' Office, in a Facebook post, said the Bertha fire is showing “increased fire activity” as of this afternoon. A mandatory evacuation remains in effect for the Bear Creek area.

Update at 11:25 a.m. CST:

A mandatory evacuation order remains in effect for the Bear Creek community in Bay County.

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire, which has grown to more than 28,000 acres, has put homes in the area at risk as it rages nearby.

EvacuationMap Bear Creek.jpg
Bay County Emergency Services
A closeup view of mandatory evacuation zone in Bay County for the Bertha Swamp Road Fire on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford announced on Monday night that communities under a mandatory evacuation order for the Adkins Avenue Fire can safely return home. He cautions them to still monitor the Bay County Emergency Services' Facebook page and the Bay County Sheriff's Office's Facebook page for the latest evacuation information.

Update at 10:33 a.m. CST:

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried briefed the public this morning on three wildfires in Bay County.

"I'm confident that these wildfires will not break our spirit or our commitment to continue to work together and to protect our communities," said Fried, speaking at a news conference at HG Harder's Park in Panama City on Tuesday morning. "We are all in this together."

Valerie Crowder
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried updates the public on wildfires burning in Bay County at a news conference on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

The Florida Forest Service's Blue Incident Management Team is overseeing a unified command of forestry personnel, local law enforcement, local firefighters from across the state and national guard service members working to put out three wildfires that comprise what's known as the "Chipola Complex."

"We're all here together to protect our lands, to protect our homes, but most importantly to protect you."

More than 70 bulldozers and 10 aircraft are working to put out the blaze.

"When you've got this much timber that's still on the ground, all it takes is one small spark, and that's what happens," Fried said, pointing at a map of the 28,000-acre Bertha Swamp Road Fire posted behind her.

Hurricane Michael left about 2.8 million acres of tree debris on the ground after it tore through Northwest Florida more than three years ago. Fried explained forestry crews working to clean up the debris have faced numerous challenges. "It's just been one thing after another."

"Unfortunately, a lot of the equipment that has been used historically to clear some debris is not even geared toward clearing this type of timber," she said. "Even when it is able to be cleared, where is it going? We know that so many of the mills in this community have shut down and there's no place even to transport it."

Fried said a lot of homeowners have also abandoned their properties, leaving fallen tree debris on the ground.

A dry winter has increased the risk of wildfires this season.

"We all knew this. We'd all been talking about it. The reality has set in, and it's only March," Fried said. "It is just the beginning part of the drought. We unfortunately could be having a long season in front of us."

That means no backyard burning, Fried said. "You may think that you are invincible. You may think 'Oh, it's just a trash fire, I can get it under control if one piece falls out of the trash. But the reality is if you're not paying attention that one split second. And if you don't have water or a fire hydrant by you or dirt or something to put out the fire, it could take a matter of moments before you lose sight of the fire and we're sitting in something like this."

Update at 9 a.m. CST:

Firefighters continue working to contain three wildfires in Bay County, with the largest fire doubling in size over night.

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire is now estimated at 28,109 acres, up from 14,000 acres on Monday afternoon. It remains active in Bay, Gulf and Calhoun Counties. It's 10% contained.

No additional mandatory evacuations are expected in Bay County due to this fire anytime soon, but residents in Gulf and Calhoun Counties are urged to monitor the Facebook pages of their county sheriff's offices for possible evacuation orders.

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire pushed further north into Calhoun County overnight, Florida Forest Service (FFS) officials said.

The Adkins Avenue Fire is 875 acres and 50% contained and the Star Avenue Fire is 250 acres and 60% contained.

A unified command of firefighters from across the state, national guard service members and state forestry personnel is working under the FFS's Blue Incident Management Team.

More than 70 tractor plow units and 10 aircraft units are working to put out the blaze.

Forest Helicopter Staged at Harder's Park in Bay County.jpg
Valerie Crowder
A Florida Forest Service helicopter is staged at HG Harder's Park in northern Bay County on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

The aircraft unit working to put out the fires, according to the Florida Forest Service's latest update:

  • 2 FFS helicopters
  • 2 FFS fixed-wing aircraft
  • 2 Florida National Guard Black Hawk helicopters
  • 2 Florida National Guard Chinook helicopters
  • 2 Southeastern Compact single-engine air tankers (SEATS)
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.