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What's next after firefighters contain massive blaze in northwest Florida?

The Bertha Swamp Road Fire releases clouds of smoke over Streets Ferry Road in Calhoun County on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.
Valerie Crowder
The Bertha Swamp Road Fire releases clouds of smoke over Streets Ferry Road in Calhoun County on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

Forestry crews and firefighters have made progress on containing a massive blaze in northwest Florida, with the help of recent rainfall.

The Bertha Swamp Road fire is the largest in the state, burning more than 33,141 acres of mostly Hurricane Michael tree debris in Bay, Gulf and Calhoun Counties. The fire is 40% contained, with rain over the last couple of days helping crews access it more safely.

Two other fires burning in Bay County have gotten smaller and are mostly under control. Mandatory evacuation orders in the county were lifted on Wednesday.

When a wildfire is contained, it's completely surrounded by barriers that keep it from spreading. Forestry tractors, bulldozers and brush trucks are clearing away tree debris in rows around the fire to contain it. Without fuel, the fire is unable to spread.

After the blaze is contained, local forestry crews and firefighters will focus on cooling it down, said Melanie Banton, public information officer with the Florida Forest Service.

"They will continue to monitor and patrol this fire in all of its entirety," Banton said. "And if needed, they will put water on it." She says they could also scrape up some of the fuel with tractors to help cool it down.

This work will continue until the flames and smoke are gone. That could take a while with the fire feeding on tons of slow-burning tree debris, she said.

“Those hardwood timbers, those tall timbers that we have out there from Hurricane Michael," Banton said. "That’s a lot of fuel to burn and it will smoke and have heat for quite a while.”

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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.