Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a press conference Tuesday that the largest wildfire in Florida’s Panhandle has more than doubled in size since yesterday, bringing total coverage of the three Panhandle fires to about 29,000 acres.
The Bertha Swamp Road fire has now grown to an estimated 28,109 acres at 10% containment, up from the 12,000 acres it covered Monday morning. The Star Avenue fire and Atkins Avenue fire cover a combined 1,125 acres, but both are at least 50% contained.
During the news conference, Fried thanked the Forest Service, firefighters, and federal, state and local first responders who have been fighting the wildfires for six straight days. More than 70 tractor plow units and 10 air assets are currently working to suppress the fire.
“I said this before, and I’ll say it again, having these types of partnerships established before a disaster hits is critical in the coordination of emergency responses,” Fried said.
She encouraged everyone in the affected areas to listen to evacuation orders and to not try to protect their homes. She added that all shelters are animal friendly, so residents do not have to worry about leaving their pets behind.
“Staying in your homes to try to protect your property only hurts you and really puts all of our guys in danger,” Fried said. “Your safety comes first.”
The fires are occurring near where the center of Hurricane Michael hit in 2018. The Category 5 hurricane blew down a large amount of timber, making it difficult for responders to fight wildfires in the area. The fallen timber also has provided more fuel for the wildfires to quickly grow and spread.
Anthony Petellat, incident commander at the Florida Forest Service, said during the press conference the focus of first responders today would be trying to further contain the Bertha Swamp Road fire. A strike team of heavy bulldozers is focusing on building fire lines and defensible space around the communities near Bear Creek.
He said they are hoping rain forecast in the next couple of days helps put out the fire, but that the soggy ground would make it more difficult for their vehicles to be able to respond to the fire.
“It’s kind of a give-and-take. But right now, we’re welcoming it and hope that we get a whole lot,” Petellat said.
Fried said the Florida Panhandle will be able to overcome the fires.
“We know that the Florida Panhandle is strong and resilient. We know what everybody has gone through since Hurricane Michael blew through this community. We were here for you then. We continue to be here for you now. We are all in this together,” Fried said.
Information about how to prepare for your yard, home and emergency supply kit for a wildfire is available online.