PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Hundreds of residents forced to evacuate over the weekend as blazes in the Florida Panhandle threatened their houses have been allowed to return home, but residents in a neighboring county were evacuated Tuesday as three wildfires grew to more than 29,000 acres (11,735 hectares).
Over the weekend, 1,100 residents were evacuated from homes in Bay County, Florida, an area where tons of destroyed trees from Hurricane Michael three years ago have fueled the fires. But officials gave the approval Monday for about 600 residents to return after one of the fires — the 875-acre (355 hectares) Adkins Avenue Fire — was 60% contained. By Tuesday evening, it was 80% contained.
The largest of the wildfires, the Bertha Swamp Road Fire, has grown to more than 28,000 acres (11,330 hectares) and was only 10% contained. Mandatory evacuations remained in place for hundreds of Bay County residents who fled the fire over the weekend, and on Tuesday an undisclosed number of homes in neighboring Calhoun County were ordered to be evacuated because of the blaze.
“This is a living, breathing beast,” Brad Monroe, chief of Bay County Emergency Services, said at a news conference in Southport with state and local officials. “It grows and grows and grows.”
A third blaze, the Star Avenue Fire, forced the evacuation of a state-operated nursing home for veterans Sunday but residents were allowed to return Monday. As of Tuesday evening, the 250-acre (100 hectares) wildfire was 80% contained.
Hurricane Michael in 2018 left behind 72 million tons (65 million metric 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.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced at the news conference that displaced residents would be eligible for $6.1 million in grants to help pay for temporary housing, day care and food.
The fires have taken similar paths as the hurricane debris, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said.
“It’s like a ghost and we can’t get rid of the damn thing,” Patronis said. “The fuel is on the ground, and it’s creating a pathway.”