Early wildfires in Panhandle point to worsening fire season to come

More than 29,000 acres burning in zone devastated by Hurricane Michael

By: - March 8, 2022 1:43 pm

Bertha Swamp Road Fire in northwest Florida. Credit: Florida Forest Service

Nearly 34,000 acres statewide were on fire in Florida Tuesday, most of it on timberlands in the Panhandle, where Hurricane Michael in 2018 leveled millions of pine trees that remain on the ground ready to burn.

“When you have this much timber that’s still on the ground, all it takes is one small spark and that’s what happens,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, pointing to a map of the largest fires, comprising more than 29,000 acres in Bay and neighboring counties.

Under smoky skies, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried points to a map showing where more than 29,000 acres are on fire. She said the fires were accidental and preventable. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Under smoky skies, Fried and firefighters at a press conference in Bay County implored Floridians not to set any fires right now – not trash fires, not backyard barbecues, none – because drought conditions are making accidental wildfires more likely. Fried said local, state and federal firefighting teams and equipment have been fighting the blazes for six straight days.

Conditions are expected to worsen, said Johnny Sabo, assistant director of the Florida Forest Service.

“We’re really early in the year. … We usually don’t see this type of fire activity until we get into April,” Sabo said. “All of our forecasts are showing it’s going to be a very busy, active fire season this spring and summer.”

Sabo said the fire risk is elevated statewide.

Fried said while managed fire is part of a natural cycle of forest regeneration, stronger hurricanes and rising heat caused by climate change are fueling destructive wildfires in Florida.

The single fire of most concern this week is the Bertha Swamp Road fire, which originated in Gulf County and spread into Calhoun and Bay counties. The Forest Service reported Tuesday the wildfire covers 28,109 acres and is feeding on dead vegetation and dry pine trees felled by Hurricane Michael.

The fire was only 10 percent contained Tuesday. Even with a more favorable forecast ahead, including lighter winds and a chance of rain, firefighters do not expect much help from the weather in containing the main fire.

Mandatory evacuations were in place for residents in and around an area south of U.S. 231.

Fried, Sabo and others at the press conference urged residents to use extreme caution and be vigilant to protect themselves. They urged property owners to make reasonable preparations to protect their property but to leave it behind when wildfires are near and may threaten their lives.

Information about active wildfires in Florida is available at FDACS.gov/ActiveWildfirePoints. Information on preventing and preparing for wildfire is at BeWildfireReadyFL.com.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.