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'Tremendous Teamwork' Against Santa Rosa Fire

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northescambia.com
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Firefighters are hoping to hold containment lines around the Five Mile Swamp Fire near Milton, where winds are expected to shift on Friday.

Burning since midday Monday, the fire has scorched nearly 2,200 acres, forced hundreds of residents to flee, and razed at least 17 structures. Containment is about 35%, says Joe Zwierzchowski at the Forestry Service’s Blackwater office.

“Got a lot of good work in [Thursday]; our local guys have been on it for two to three days,” said Zwierzchowski. “And we brought in a tremendous amount of bulldozers and support personnel from throughout the state.”

On Thursday morning, about 40 personnel were on the fire, and that number rose to around 60 by that evening. Two major concerns remain — a lot of unburned fuel — dried plant debris, and increasing wind speeds.

“Some pockets of vegetation in between where the fire ran south of the Interstate; and [Friday] we’ve got some wind coming,” said Zwierzchowski. “Thirteen to 18 mph, gusting up to 25. All of it’s going to be kind of out of the south-southwest, so it’s going to test those northern lines and push a lot of smoke towards the Interstate.”

That smoke will also impact communities to the north. Meanwhile, the portion of I-10 that was shut down – from Exits 22-31 — has re-opened, according to Santa Rosa Emergency Management.

The weather forecast calls for slightly cooler temperatures, and a 60 to 70% chance of rain for Friday and Saturday, but Zwierzchowski says he’ll believe it when he sees it.

“Unfortunately, that rain sometimes can be a little spotty; so what we’re hoping happens is one of those cells build and dumps a ton of precipitation right on the fire,” Zwierzchowski said. “What we’re afraid might happen is one of those cells builds away from the fire, and all we get is those outflow winds – those higher gusts – and no more moisture. It’s kind of a 50-50 shot, and we’ll see what we get out of that.”

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Joe Zwierzchowski, Public Information Officer, FL Forestry Service's Blackwater Division.

The firebreaks – one about a half-mile from a neighborhood – seem to be holding, but officials are urging residents to be ready to leave should they be given the word.

But Forestry is not fighting the blaze alone. Zwierzchowski says a ton of organizations are pitching in.

“Department of Environmental Protection; state parks, I’ve seen some Clay County Fire-Rescue equipment out here,” said Zwierzchowski. “And also we’re working with our partners at the Florida Department of Transportation; the Florida Highway Patrol, Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office. It’s been some tremendous teamwork to get us to where we are today.”

Authorities say the fire began on Monday when a controlled burn by a company on their land went out of control. The firm has not been identified, but it will face what are expected to be multiple charges.

“There’s a formal process that has to go forward from here; whoever strikes that match is responsible for the end result of their fire,” said Zwierzchowski. “We could be talking about suppression costs; insurance issues, obviously the loss of homes is going to weigh heavily into that. There’s going to be some stiff penalties, and we’re working that process as we speak.”

Weekend rain notwithstanding, Forestry’s Joe Zwierzchowski’s advice to residents is to avoid any outdoor burning for now.

“Give it a few days; let it rain [and] let’s get this thing behind us before we clean up our yards,” Zwierzchowski said. “We’ve got beautiful weather – I know we’ve had storm systems move through here and dropped some limbs and a lot of leaves all over the place. Let’s not burn this weekend; let’s wait a little while, get some rain behind us, and let this thing settle down.”

FEMA will provide grants to reimburse 75% of eligible firefighting costs. That can include labor, equipment and supplies, along with costs for emergency work such as evacuations and sheltering, police barricading and traffic control.