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Local Fires At 90% Containment, Assistance Continues

Leah Thornton

Florida Forest Service firefighters continue to reinforce containment lines and mop up hot spots of the 2,215-acre Five Mile Swamp Fire. Tuesday morning, FFS reported the fire was 90% contained. 

Monday’s red flag warning has expired, but Blackwater Forestry Center spokesman Joe Zwierzchowski says the weather continues to be a challenge.

“It’s still dry, still dangerous,” he said. “We want people to be cautious until we see some decent rainfall.”

Wednesday will mark one week that the wildfire spread to residential neighborhoods, leading families to evacuate. It began May 4 as a prescribed burn. An investigation is under way to determine how the fire got out of control.

A number of residents in the affected area stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Navarre, alongside firefighters from across the state. Most evacuees have left for more-permanent housing, said General Manager Andy Peterson. Altogether, 43 rooms have served evacuees and firefighters. 

The hospitality industry has taken a financial hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Peterson said he was glad to make the accommodations even with minimal staff and supplies. Although, business is starting to pick up with Navarre Beach reopened. 

“Our job is to provide hospitality,” he said. “And sometimes you have to do that when times are bad.”

Incidentally, it was the pandemic that led evacuees to the hotel. Red Cross of Northwest Florida funded the accommodations, which can be unusual, said Executive Director Jerry Kindle.

“Typically, we’d open a shelter but with COVID-19, we knew going in that there couldn’t be social distancing,” he said. 

Red Cross volunteers provided emergency assistance not only for the Five Mile Swamp Fire, but the Hurst Hammock Fire in Escambia County and the Mussett Bayou Fire in Walton County. 

Kindle said that last week’s back-to-back fires stretched volunteers thin. It was a first to have such a need in a short time span. 

“We were standing by on all of those,” said Kindle. “It’s not unusual to have a couple of fires … but it’s very unusual to have a couple of fires that cause this much damage.”

On top of emergency assistance, Red Cross helps displaced families connect with resources for long-term help. Currently, they have four families who have requested additional assistance. People can support the cause two ways: donating time or money, said Kindle. 

You can donate to Red Cross of Northwest Florida here. You can also donate to those affected by the Five Mile Swamp Fire by donating to SAFER Santa Rosa.  

“We want to help families get back to their pre-fire situation,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s help with first month’s rent or deposit (for a new place), sometimes it’s just clothes.” 

As for the other fires, the Hurst Hammock Fire is 1,191 acres and 90% contained. The Mussett Bayou Fire is also 90% contained with 343 acres burned. Walton County Commissioners voted Tuesday to issue a burn ban until further notice. 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.