Rain slows Panhandle wildfires, evacuations end

Fire
Significant rainfall has improved current conditions, but there still remains a wildfire threat because of debris left by Hurricane Michael.

Rain on Wednesday slowed the activity of the three wildfires in the Panhandle and all evacuation orders have been lifted, according to the Florida Forest Service (FFS).

In a statement Thursday, the FFS said there is no substantial activity on the Chipola Complex, which encompasses three wildfires. Significant rainfall has improved current conditions, but there still remains a wildfire threat because of the exponential volume of dead trees and vegetation left behind from Hurricane Michael.

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire, located in Gulf, Bay  and Calhoun counties, is estimated at more than 33,000 acres and 20% contained. The Adkins Avenue Fire, located in Bay County, covers 875 acres and 85% contained. The Star Ave Fire, located in Bay County, is 197 acres and 95% contained.

Julie Allen, a spokesperson with the FFS, told Florida Politics Thursday that no active evacuation orders are still in effect due to the wildfires. More than 1,000 homes were evacuated over the past week.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the FFS announced Tuesday evening that there were evacuations in Calhoun County. But Jamie Norris, interim director of Calhoun County Emergency Management, told Florida Politics Thursday that they did not order any evacuations in Calhoun County and no structures have been threatened or damaged on the Calhoun County side of the fire.

“Forestry put out misinformation concerning this causing panic and confusion in the area,” Norris said.

When asked whether there were evacuations in Calhoun County, Allen said they were informed by the incident commander that there were evacuations of the area.

“The evacuation orders come from emergency management agencies and are conducted and enforced by law enforcement agencies. We (the Florida Forest Service and Incident Management Team) share the information that is provided to us. Those evacuation orders were lifted the next day and there are no current evacuations on the Chipola Complex in place at this time,” Allen said.

DeSantis also announced Tuesday evening that the state government is mobilizing resources to help those impacted by the fires recover.

He announced the Department of Economic Opportunity will be working with local community action agencies to provide $6.1 million to families to help get them back on their feet through community service block grants and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs. Individuals who were displaced or whose homes were damaged by the fires will be able to apply for funding to help with items such as food, temporary housing, daycare costs, transportation assistance and utility repair costs.

The Department of Children and Families also is launching a family resource support center at the Bay County Fairgrounds. The center will help coordinate support for displaced families, and house staff that will connect families to available local and state resources. 

“This whole area has been through a lot in the past three years starting with Hurricane Michael. We need to make sure that they are able to take care of themselves as they take care of others,” DeSantis said. “The staff will be on the ground to help for as long as they are needed.”

The state also is activating the Business Damage Assessment Survey, used to evaluate the impact of the wildfires on businesses in the area. Depending on the responses, the state will be able to determine if the area’s businesses qualify for additional resources at the state or federal levels. Businesses can complete the survey online.

Tristan Wood

Tristan Wood graduated from the University of Florida in 2021 with a degree in Journalism. A South Florida native, he has a passion for political and accountability reporting. He previously reported for Fresh Take Florida, a news service that covers the Florida Legislature and state political stories operating out of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications. You can reach Tristan at [email protected], or on Twitter @TristanDWood



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