1,100 homes evacuated as firefighters battle Florida fires

20,000 acres of brush are burning in Bay County

Smoke is seen from a church in Bay County, where two massive brush fires continue. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Veterans forced to evacuate a nursing home because of a Florida Panhandle wildfire were allowed to return home Monday, officials said, but mandatory evacuations remained in place for two larger fires.

Firefighters continued to battle the 12,000-acre (about 4,860-hectare) Bertha Swamp Road fire and the 841-acre (340-hectare) Adkins Avenue fire, which have threatened homes and forced residents of at least 1,100 houses in Bay County, Florida. The Adkins Avenue fire destroyed two structures and damaged another 12 homes late Friday.

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A smaller fire that developed Sunday caused the evacuation of a 120-bed, state-operated nursing home in Panama City. The Star Avenue Fire was estimated to be 250 acres (100 hectares) and 45% contained. Residents were cleared to return to Clifford Chester Sims State Veterans’ Nursing Home on Monday, the Panama City News Herald reported.

In 2018, Hurricane Michael left behind 72 million tons of destroyed trees that have provided fuel for the Bay County wildfires, according to the Florida Forest Service. The hurricane was directly responsible for 16 deaths and about $25 billion in damage in the U.S.

Local authorities say they don't know when residents will be able to return to their homes. The county opened a shelter at the Bay County Fairgrounds for displaced residents.

The Adkins Avenue fire has been burning in Bay County since Friday, forcing the evacuation of at least 600 homes, and it was 40% contained Monday. The much-larger Bertha Swamp Fire started in neighboring Gulf County on Friday but spread to Bay and Calhoun counties Saturday, forcing the evacuation of scores of more homes. It was 10% contained as of Monday.

Florida Forest Service helicopters had dropped more than 105,000 gallons (about 477,000 liters) of water on the Adkins Avenue fire since Friday, and 25 bulldozers had been deployed to plow fire lines. Firefighters from all over Florida were deployed to the county to battle the blazes.

Currently, there are nearly 171 wildfires burning more than 15,000 acres (about 6,070 hectares) throughout Florida, and the state is only at the very beginning of its wildfire season.