Wildfires rage in dry Panhandle, forcing evacuations outside of Pensacola

Winds and dry conditions set the stage for the Five Mile Swamp fire to burn out of control Wednesday, destroying 18 homes and closing Interstate 10.
Published May 7, 2020|Updated May 7, 2020

Florida is now dealing with a second disaster unfolding amidst the pandemic: A wildfire raged out of control in Santa Rosa County late Wednesday in the Panhandle, destroying homes, forcing emergency evacuations and shutting down nine miles of Interstate 10.

“This is a rapidly evolving situation,” Santa Rosa emergency management officials said in a statement. “If you do not feel safe in your home, you should leave. Take your pets with you.”

Related: St. Pete Fire-Rescue sending help to Pensacola as wildfires spread

At least 500 people have been evacuated and 18 homes destroyed, Florida Forest Service officials said in a Wednesday night news conference. The fire consumed 150 acres on Monday, officials said, and as of Wednesday had burned 2,000 acres. It was just 20 percent contained when officials spoke at about 9 p.m.

The fire started as a prescribed burn on Monday but quickly grew out of control by Wednesday afternoon. It was located just 10 miles east of Pensacola’s Cordova Mall.

Officials closed a portion of I-10 at about 2 p.m. as the blaze — named the Five Mile Swamp fire — jumped across the highway.

The fire started on private property. The Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office said it will investigate how it got out of hand.

Gov. Ron DeSantis will speak from Santa Rosa County on Thursday, local officials said.

The Five Mile Swamp Fire as it crosses Interstate 10 on Wednesday afternoon.
The Five Mile Swamp Fire as it crosses Interstate 10 on Wednesday afternoon. [ Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services ]

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for Northwest Florida on Wednesday, warning that dry weather conditions could promote the rapid spread of all fires in the area.

The Five Mile Swamp Fire was one of three wildfires burning in Northwest Florida.

The Hurst Hammock fire, which burned in nearby Escambia County, had burned 60 acres as of Wednesday and was 40 percent contained. The other fire was also in Santa Rosa County and had burned 70 acres by Wednesday night. It was just 20 percent contained.

Florida Forest Service spokesman Joe Zwierzchowski said “significant resources” are being used to fight the fires. Among those resources are multiple helicopters, almost 20 bulldozers and dozens of firefighters — from Northwest Florida and other parts of the state.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said on Twitter that the state requested resources to help fight the fire and that he was sending a team of five engines.

Almost all of Florida has had less-than-usual rainfall this year. This dryness helped fuel the fires on Wednesday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Jack Cullen, who is based in the Mobile, Ala. office. But the wind is the real culprit.

“Pensacola’s drought condition is abnormally dry,” he said. “What made this (fire) today was the wind, to go along with the dry conditions and low humidity.”

The dry weather will continue in the Panhandle, Cullen said, suggesting there will be little help from mother nature to control the fire until the chance of rain grows this weekend.

“I encourage all Floridians to be aware of the fire danger, exercise caution, follow directives from state and local officials, and help protect our fellow residents,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Cullen said the fire got out of control on Wednesday because of a cold front that entered the region overnight. The front brought winds that were 15-25 miles per hour and caused a dip in humidity levels. This, along with the area being five inches below its typical rainfall for the year, made for perfect conditions for the fire to escalate.

The drought conditions in the Panhandle is not as bad as other parts of Florida, including Tampa Bay. Fried announced on Wednesday that Central Florida is under a ‘fire watch’ until further notice.

Southwest Florida is currently in a severe drought, according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, while most of Pasco and Hillsborough counties are in a moderate drought.

Florida drought conditions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Florida drought conditions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. [ The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ]

National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Sobien in Ruskin said the drought was a bigger concern for Tampa Bay a month ago — before thunderstorms began dumping rain on the region the past two weeks.

“The rain we had a few days back really helped a lot,” Sobien said. “The place in Florida that is really lacking in rainfall right now is the southwest, like the Everglades up through Naples and Fort Myers.”

Some rain should come to Southwest Florida this weekend, Sobien said, potentially taking the region out of the ‘severe drought’ classification. Tampa Bay will also get rain, but it’s too soon to tell how much.

“There’s a pretty good amount of rain coming this weekend,” Sobien said. “It’ll be good here for us, but especially for Naples and everybody down there. It’s even drier down there than it is in the Panhandle where these fires are.”