A private company with permission to conduct a controlled burn this week in Santa Rosa County could be hit with a hefty price tag for letting the fire get out of control.
At 9 p.m. Wednesday, the Monday fire, named the Five Mile Swamp fire, had consumed 2,000 acres of land in central Santa Rosa County, destroyed a dozen homes and damaged several other structures.
Those asked to evacuate Wednesday afternoon won't be allowed to return to their homes until at least noon Thursday, officials said at an 8 p.m. news conference in the county's Emergency Operations Center in Milton. Gulf Power cut electricity to the area and the utility's infrastructure was damaged by the blaze.
Joe Zwierzchowski, a spokesman with the Florida Forest Service's Blackwater Forestry Center, said the fire was about 20% contained. Thursday morning, officials estimated the fire was 40 percent contained. Firefighters worked through the night to extinguish the fire. Traffic has been rerouted off the portion of Interstate 10 affected by the fire. Drivers on U.S. 98 on Thursday morning are asked to use caution in case smoke is lingering in the south end of the county.
Five people were sheltered at the Milton Community Center, the site designated for those evacuated from the fire's path.
Anyone with property in the affected area is asked to call 983-INFO.
Firefighters won't be getting help from Mother Nature tonight or Thursday. Low humidity and higher winds are expected. There is no precipitation in the Thursday forecast.
Zwierzchowski said the private contractor was given the green light on Monday to burn about 200 acres but failed to control the fire. He said the company could be billed for the cost to extinguish the fire.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visited to the affected area Thursday. He did not speak publicly about the fire. Florida's Agriculture Secretary, Nikki Fried, also visited the site and updated the public on efforts to extinguish the fire.
There is a second fire in Santa Rosa. It's off Chumuckla Highway and had burned about 60 acres. In Escambia County, a Beulah-area wildfire also started on Wednesday.
With drought-like conditions and low humidity in the forecast, Zwierzchowski asked the public to refrain from any outdoor burning.