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Bay County residents fear losing homes in wildfires

 The Bertha Swamp Fire, which started in Gulf County, is moving into Bay County and putting homes in the Bear Creek area at risk.
Bay County Emergency Services
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The Bertha Swamp Fire, which started in Gulf County, is moving into Bay County and putting homes in the Bear Creek area at risk.

Hurricane Michael destroyed Teresa Counts' home in Bay County. Now, she's concerned she'll lose her new home to a wildfire that's feeding on timber debris from the same storm.

"This morning, I didn't want to accept it, but I don't know that I'll have a home to come home to tomorrow," Counts said. She and her husband had evacuated Saturday night and returned to their home briefly on Sunday to check on their property before leaving again. “See the ashes flying."

Michael made landfall in the county more than three years ago. Since then, the county has been at an increased risk of wildfires due to the thousands of acres of tree debris that remain on the ground. The county's largest fire is burning most actively in an area that intersected with the storm's direct path.

State officials say more than 1,100 homes are under mandatory evacuation orders. At least three homes have been destroyed. Firefighters were working to put out fires in people’s backyards over the weekend. No injuries or deaths among residents were reported as of Sunday.

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire was about three miles from Counts' home on South Bear Creek Road and spanned 9,000 acres on Sunday.

“In my backyard, there’s a burnt spot that wasn’t there yesterday,"Counts said. "I don’t know how it went out, but it did.”

State officials say dry air, high winds and hurricane timber debris have created a perfect storm for fast-moving fires.

“We’re seeing spotting," said Mike Mathis, with the Florida Forest Service. "It’s when the main fire throws embers onto unburned ground."

Mathis says those embers have been igniting smaller fires that crews are quickly putting out.

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Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.