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Wildfire crews focus efforts on protecting homes and businesses, while working to contain the blaze

Valerie Crowder
A forestry service tractor clears flammable debris from a field that's in the path of the Bertha Swamp Road Fire in Calhoun County on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

Firefighters working to tame wildfires in northwest Florida have successfully protected homes and businesses, but crews still have a lot of work ahead of them to fully contain a massive blaze that's burning in three counties.

“If you would’ve said last week this fire would’ve been this big, we all would’ve predicted much, much more in the way of destruction of people’s homes,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis at a press conference in Panama City on Tuesday.

Mandatory evacuation orders for hundreds of homes in Bay County have been lifted. At least two homes were destroyed, and about a dozen were confirmed damaged.

Nearly 200 firefighters, more than 70 bulldozers and at least 10 aircraft have been working to contain three wildfires.

The fires are known as the Chipola Complex, which is burning more than 34,000 acres. The Florida Forest Service is commanding a team of local firefighters, law enforcement, national guard members, forestry service members and state and local emergency services personnel to protect residents and their property.

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire is the largest fire burning in the state. It was more than 33,000 acres in Bay, Gulf and Calhoun counties on Thursday. That's the same size it was the day before, despite getting more than three inches of rain overnight. The fire is 20% contained.

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.

Making progress on containing the largest fire hasn't been easy for firefighters. They're struggling against conditions that are extremely conducive to large wildfires: high-winds, dry air and tons of Hurricane Michael tree debris piled on the ground.

And while the fire is mostly burning in privately owned wooded areas, away from homes, it's spread has put communities in its path. Earlier this week, it was burning dangerously close to Bay County neighborhoods in the Bear Creek area. That area is now deemed safe.

As the Bertha fire moved north-northeast on Tuesday, some residents in Calhoun County were evacuated. Meanwhile, another section of the fire moved southeast farther into Gulf County, forcing the relocation of nearly 1,700 state prisoners from the Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka to prisons in nearby counties.

To protect homes and businesses, forestry crews have been clearing away lines of tree debris around neighborhoods in the fire's path, "making defensible space," said Mike Mathis, a district manager for the Florida Forest Service. "If there's dead, dying timber, we'll push it out of the way."

Mathis says this gives firetrucks more time to arrive on the scene and douse the flames if needed.

On Tuesday, firefighters from southwest and central Florida were stationed on a road in rural Calhoun County watching a large cloud of smoke billowing from a section of the Bertha fire.

"We’re here to watch the area and try to see if we can’t keep it from moving across the road,” said Captain Scott Wilson, with the Greater Naples Fire Department. “Everybody’s a little anxious right now, they’re wanting to see some fire and wanting to do some work.”

Meanwhile, aircraft were dumping water onto the flames in an effort to slow it down. A forestry tractor was simultaneously scraping away dead grass and tree debris to deprive it of the potential fuel in its path. “We’ve got some open fields,” Wilson said. “Hopefully that will slow everything down a little bit, but we do have a little bit of brush here and there.”

Bertha Swamp Road Fire - Helicopter

The forestry service uses tractors and bulldozers to create containment lines around the fire to keep it from spreading. "That's where it gets dangerous," Wilson said.

Bulldozers, fire brush trucks and tractors are doing most of the work, said Melanie Banton, public information officer for the Florida Forest Service. Even with heavy equipment, crews are facing plenty of obstacles to contain the blaze.

Most of the 2.8 million acres of tree debris from the storm remains on the ground, on privately owned land. In the three years since the hurricane, about 30% of it has been removed. Wildfire officials say tons of dead and decaying timber on the ground is making the fire especially difficult to contain.

"It's like a giant fireplace," Banton said.

One challenge to clearing debris near the fire is the terrain. Some of the fire is burning in swampy areas, which they can't access. “We can’t put bulldozers into wet ground," she said. "They’re just going to sink."

Hot spots deep within the fire create another challenge. Those areas are extremely active and too dangerous to access on the ground.

Firefighters Stationed in Calhoun County.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Firefighters are stationed on Streets Ferry Road in Calhoun County to prevent Bertha Swamp Road Fire from crossing the road on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

The counties hit by the hurricane are currently in a moderate drought, which has also elevated the risk of wildfires in the area.

Rain has fallen periodically over the fire since late Tuesday night. Even with the added moisture, the fire still had heat and was generating smoke on Thursday morning, Banton said.

Though welcome, the rain is expected to bring its own challenge, said Anthony Petellat, Chipola Complex incident commander.

"The one downfall to it is that when you start getting the moisture on the ground now a lot of our equipment won’t be able to operate within those areas," he said. "It’s kind of a give and take. But right now, we’re welcoming it and hope that we get a whole lot.”