Agriculture Sec. Nikki Fried visited the western Panhandle on Thursday, to get first-hand information on the wildfires that have destroyed property and forced evacuations. Fried met with local officials and the media.
“Thank you to the brave men and women who have been here since Monday that have been working around-the-clock to save lives, to save homes,” said Agriculture Sec. Nikki Fried, who met with local officials Thursday about the 2,000-acre Five Mile Swamp blaze near Milton.
“We do know the cause of the fire; it’s been determined it was an escaped prescribed burn by a private contractor on private land, north of Interstate-10, which started at mid-morning on Monday,” said Fried. “Seeing an increase in wind speeds and a decrease in humidity is really what caused that huge spread.”
Twenty-four hours later, the humidity was up and winds were down, providing some badly needed help for crews who have reached 40% containment as of Thursday. Mary Kitchens Road north to I-10 at Garcon Point remains closed.
Read Santa Rosa County's update here.
“We have multiple fire crews; we got our strike team from Jacksonville [and] a combined strike team from Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Clay,” said Brad Baker, Santa Rosa County Emergency Manager. “They will help relieve some of our crews that spent the night out there. And then we’ll start rotating our crews back in.”
For now, there is no definitive count on how many structures have been lost. Current estimates list around 17 homes and structures razed by the fire, but Baker says the final count likely will be way above that.
“We’ve confirmed 13 residential structures that have been destroyed; and we are continuing to work that number and do damage assessment,” Baker said. Those 13 people probably need a little longer for sheltering. We’ve not gotten to the point of ‘Do you have insurance or not?’ And even the ability of the insurance company to come in and look.”
Everything south of Mary Kitchens Road on Avalon and Garcon Point Road, and on the west side of Avalon, is at a level-1 evacuation. People can return to their homes, but are advised to keep an eye out. Level-1 also extends up to Da Lisa Road.
“So the question is about sheltering, and yes we are prepared for sheltering,” said Baker. “There were five [people] who showed up at the community center. We opened that because we had to have a spot that we could open immediately because we were doing emergency evacuations.”
Indian Bayou to Mary Kitchens Road, and the houses along Mary Kitchens Road, are a level-2 evacuation – residents there may return home, but be ready to leave again on short notice. Amid concerns about COVID-19, Baker says many evacuees have been provided hotel rooms, rather than large-venue shelters.
“We have a non-congregate plan, we have for our first responders and health care workers; we just kind of tailored that and opened it up,” said Baker. “If they were already with their families, they were already exposed to whatever COVID-19 symptoms they had within their families. So we put them up in a hotel room.”
Gulf Power, which cut electricity to the area for safety reasons, has crews working on restoration and replacing about 70 burned poles.
“They did take an entire grid, and close it all the way south to the bay; when we evaluated conditions they were able to turn part of that grid back on from Mary Kitchens south,” Baker said. “So really, the only power that’s been shut off is in the hardest-hit area between north of Mary Kitchens and all the way to the Interstate.”
“I-10 is still closed from the 22-mile marker to the 31-mile marker; we’re here basically to support the Forestry Service, so at the point that they believe we can open [the] Interstate, that’s when we’ll open it,” said Sgt. Ron Livingston with the Florida Highway Patrol. He’s asking travelers to be cautious on secondary roads near that part of the Interstate that are now jammed.
“The traffic is backed up on Hwy. 87; it’s backed up on Hwy 90, Hwy 98, and on Avalon Blvd.,” said Livingston. “We’re pushing all the traffic heading west off at Hwy. 87; the majority of that traffic is going south. Coming from the west to Avalon, the traffic is going north and south – but the majority of that traffic is being pushed to the south.”
The short-term forecast calls for more of the same warm, dry weather from the past few days. Ag Sec. Nikki Fried says that’s directing the firefighting strategy and preparation.
“To prepare fire lines, knowing that the weather conditions may change tomorrow,” Fried said. “The winds may change, so they’re preparing for the possibility of having to expand out that area tomorrow.”
In Walton County, a 575-acre fire prompted about 500 people to evacuate. Multiple structures were lost in the fire, and it’s said to be about 65% contained as of Thursday morning.