Florida Panhandle wildfires force evacuation of hundreds of homes

Hector Rivera and Wandi Blanco put water on hotspots on a neighbor's shed next to their home on Whitehead Boulevard after the Adkins Fire tore through the area in Panama City, Florida, U.S. March 5, 2022. Mike Fender/USA Today Network via REUTERS/File Photo

March 7 (Reuters) - Steady winds across Florida's Panhandle stoked a rash of wildfires on Monday that ignited in thickets of dead vegetation left in the wake of a 2018 hurricane, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of houses and a nursing home.

The largest of the blazes, known as the Bertha Swamp Road fire, scorched 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares) and was 10% contained as it burned near communities east of Panama City, said Florida Forest Service spokesperson Joe Zwierzchowski.

"We have another day of pretty steady winds pushing fire toward these communities," he said. "Increased cloud cover, increased humidity should help tap down some of the fire behavior we have seen."

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No injuries or fatalities have been reported.

Two smaller fires - the 840-acre (340-hectare) Adkins Avenue Fire and the 250-acre (100-hectare) Star Avenue Fire - were also burning to the east of Panama City, where more than a dozen homes were damaged over the weekend. The two fires were about 40% contained, Zwierzchowski said.

The three fires have forced the evacuation of about 700 homes. A 120-bed veteran's nursing home in Panama City was also evacuated due to the smoke, he said.

Dead vegetation and timber left behind from Hurricane Michael, which struck the Panhandle in 2018, has fueled the wildfires, Zwierzchowski said.

The 72 million tons of thick vegetation left behind by the Category 5 storm has been dried by drought-like conditions in the area, which has not received significant rain in three months, he said.

"We have been bracing for this," said Zwierzchowski, noting that the some 600 miles (965 km) of fire line have been installed to prevent the spread of wildfires. "Our worst-case scenarios have come to fruition."

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Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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