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Massive wildfire in northwest Florida forces additional evacuations

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.
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 at 4:50 p.m. CST: Fire-fighting crews have made progress on containing three wildfires in northwest Florida with the help of recent rainfall.

The three fires are known as the "Chipola Complex."

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire remains at approximately 33,000 acres and is now 20% contained. It started in Gulf County and has since spread into Bay and Calhoun Counties. The fire took a north-northeastern turn last night into Calhoun County and then tracked southward farther into Gulf this morning.

The Adkins Avenue Fire — the first fire to break out in Bay County — is 875 acres and 85% contained.

The Star Avenue Fire — which started on Sunday in Bay — is 197 acres and 95% contained.

The Florida Forest Service reports the state has more than 90 wildfires burning 37,000 acres throughout the state. The 'Bertha' fire is burning most of that acreage.

As a result of Bertha's southward movement, about 1,700 inmates were relocated from the Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka last night to the Franklin Correctional Institution in Carrabelle and the Northwest Florida Relocation Center in Chipley.

Individual inmate locations will soon become available on the state Department of Corrections' website.

Update at 10:15 a.m. CST: Crews working to stop a more than 33,000-acre wildfire from continuing its spread have started to get some relief from rain that fell overnight.

“We have had a good soaking," said Melanie Banton, public information officer at the Florida Forest Service. Banton has been on the ground working with crews at incident command posts and staging areas, in addition to attending regular wildfire briefings. "Some of the hot spots in the area have cooled down."

She says the rain that fell over the fire last night is helping crews contain it. They can now bulldoze tree debris in areas that were too hot to access before, she said.

As of this morning, the fire was 10% contained and burning 33,047 acres. On Tuesday morning, the fire was 28,109 acres.

Last night's rain wasn't enough to reduce the fire's size, Banton said. "If the flames are intense enough, it can still push out a little bit through the rain," she said. The rain is helping, but it's not enough to completely douse those flames. The heat will still remain in there. That's why we have to continue to be vigilant after this rain passes."

The fire is burning in Bay, Gulf and Calhoun Counties. It spread north-northeast yesterday. Evacuations took place in Calhoun and Gulf Counties last night.

The Bay County Sheriff's Office has lifted a mandatory evacuation order for the Bear Creek Community due to the fire.

Update at 8:47 a.m. CST: The Bertha Swamp Road Fire has grown by about 5,000 acres.

The Florida Forest Service reports this morning the wildfire was 33,047 acres and 10% contained. Forestry service members are using bulldozers to clear fallen tree debris in areas surrounding the fire to keep it from spreading. The forestry service's Blue Management Incident team is overseeing a unified command of local firefighters from across the state, national guard service members and local law enforcement.

The Adkins Road Fire was burning 875 acres this morning. That fire remains 80% contained.

The Star Avenue Fire was 197 acres and 80% contained this morning.

Update at 8:38 a.m. CST: The Bear Creek community in Bay County is no longer under a mandatory evacuation order due to the Bertha Swamp Road Fire, the sheriff's office has announced.

Update at 7 a.m. CST: The Bertha Swamp Road fire pushed farther into Calhoun and Gulf Counties late Tuesday, forcing evacuations there.

Tuesday night, inmates at the Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka were relocated. First responders also evacuated residents of the rural Kinard and Broad Branch communities in Calhoun County. At that time, the fire had last been reported at 28,109 acres and 10% contained.

In Bay County, the Bear Creek community remains under a mandatory evacuation order. Waller Elementary School, which is located in that area, is closed for a third day in a row.

Two other smaller wildfires in Bay County were 80% contained as of late Tuesday. Evacuation orders for residents in the path of those fires have been lifted.

More than 70 bulldozers,10 aircraft and hundreds of firefighters have been working to contain the wildfires, which have been burning since the weekend.

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.