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US: Wildfires force mass evacuations in Florida

March 7, 2022

Firefighters are battling at least four wildfires in the Florida Panhandle in the northwest of the US state. The area is still recovering from a massive hurricane three years ago.

Two firefighters near a burnt-out car
Four major wildfires are ravaging the Florida PanhandleImage: Michael Snyder/Northwest Florida Daily News/AP/picture alliance

Hundreds of homes in the Florida Panhandle are under evacuation orders as huge wildfires continue to rage in the region, authorities say.  

The Florida Forest Service said on Sunday that nearly 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) were on fire in the area as the southeastern US state experiences an unusually early start to its fire season.

It tweeted on Monday that altogether 168 fires are burning across the state.

What is the fire situation in the Panhandle?

Residents from at least 1,100 homes, along with veterans in a state-owned nursing home in Panama City, were forced to flee on Sunday as blazes moved quickly across Bay County.

Firefighters from all over the state have been deployed to the county to battle the wildfires. So far, no deaths have been reported

One of the fires, named the Adkins Avenue Fire, destroyed two structures and damaged another 12 homes after breaking out on Friday.

 A much larger blaze, dubbed the Bertha Swamp Fire, started in neighboring Gulf County on Friday but spread to Bay and Calhoun counties on Saturday. It also forced the evacuation of scores of homes.

Local authorities say they don't know when residents will be able to return to their homes. A shelter has been opened at a fairground for displaced residents.

Fires burning in Panama City
The fires have burnt across more than 8,000 hectares in the PanhandleImage: Michael Snyder/Northwest Florida Daily News/AP/picture alliance

Why are the fires so bad?

The spread of the fires in the Panhandle has been accelerated by the 72 million US tons (65 million metric tons) of destroyed trees left behind by Hurricane Michael in 2018, the Florida Forest Service said.

A Florida Forest Service spokesman said that the early start to the fire season was an ominous harbinger of things to come, with some 168 wildfires currently burning throughout the state.

"It is incredibly dry throughout the state and typically we see this kind of activity in the months of April and May," Joe Zwierzchowski said. "Seeing it in early March really gives us an indication of what the fire season is going to be like."

Hurricane Michael was the most intense storm to hit the continental US in half a century, and the most powerful hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle.

Hurricane Michael’s destruction

tj/rt (AP, EFE)