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Bay County residents relieved, more vigilant after wildfires

A father and son stand in front of their brick home
Valerie Crowder
This father and son planned to stay behind despite mandatory evacuation order for their Bay County neighborhood. They did evacuate, but came back later on (March 6, 2022)

Almost all of the Bay County homes that were under a mandatory evacuation order due to wildfires came out unscathed. County officials estimate only two were destroyed and a dozen were damaged out of hundreds in the fire’s path.

Steven McEwen and his son left their Bear Creek home for one night after they saw large pieces of ash floating into their yards. They returned after the wind steered the fire away from their neighborhood.

“Basically of course God smiled on me because the place is still here.”

McEwen says he was grateful for heavy rain that fell days later and the firefighters who worked to contain the blaze.

"With the high winds and everything, that's really hard to contain any kind of fire. I think they did a real good job, in fact a great job."

The 33-thousand acre Bertha Swamp Road Fire is almost entirely contained. The only noticeable damage to Bear Creek resident Teresa Counts’ property is a burnt patch of grass in her backyard. She says she’s relieved she didn’t lose her home. Now she says she avoids burning anything outdoors.

"Some people are out still burning their trash and everything and not considering the fact that they could start another fire. And if we smell smoke we worry about it because we know it could happen again.”

The county’s burn ban was lifted after the area received more rain and the fires were largely contained.

State forestry officials have urged residents to avoid outdoor burning until the state’s wildfire season ends in July. They say the risk of wildfires is heightened this year following a dry winter. The ground in many panhandle counties is littered with fuel, as most of the tree debris from Hurricane Michael remains on the ground.

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.