Wildfires still burning in drought-stricken Florida Panhandle

Wildfire burning in Walton County, Florida on May 6, 2019.

Wildfires in at least three different parts of the Florida Panhandle continued burning through the night Wednesday into Thursday morning, one of them stopping traffic in its tracks.

According to the Florida Forest Service, the Five Mile Swamp Fire in Santa Rosa County grew to almost 10 times its size from Wednesday morning to Thursday morning, now covering about 2,000 acres. This fire began Monday afternoon near Milton, Florida, just east of Pensacola. So far it has burned dozens of buildings and was only 35% contained as of 10 a.m. CT Thursday.

Because of thick smoke from the fire, the Florida Highway Patrol shut down a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 10 Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t reopen until earlier Thursday.

People evacuated more than 1,000 homes as multiple crews, including 18 tractor units, worked to get the fire under control.

In nearby Walton County, Florida, a separate wildfire broke out Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of 500 families and burning 18 structures. Fifteen tractors were dispatched to the scene, the Florida Forest Service said early Thursday morning.

Walton County Sheriff Michael A. Adkins said he expects the apparently human-caused fire to continue burning throughout Thursday.

“It boils down to an illegal burning,” Adkins said in a broadcast on social media, adding that he had been in contact with state agricultural law enforcement authorities and expected an arrest shortly.

The South Walton Fire district said on Facebook that the fire in that county burned 575 acres and was 60% contained by around 2 a.m. Thursday, but the Florida Fire Service said in a tweet around the same time that the size and containment were unknown.

Another, smaller fire of roughly 60 acres in Escambia County, at the state’s northwestern edge, also burned on Wednesday.

Unusually dry conditions have persisted across much of the Florida Panhandle since fall, making it easy for wildfires to start. Recent windy weather has helped spread the fires quickly.

Almost half of Florida is listed by the U.S. Drought Monitor as “abnormally dry,” the lowest drought category; 22% is in “moderate drought”, with almost 9% in a “severe drought.”

Jonathan Erdman, senior meteorologist with weather.com, said “Pensacola, Florida, usually a reliably wet part of the northern Gulf Coast in spring, has only picked up 43% of its average rain since March 1.”

Pensacola has received 4.59 inches of rain since March. To date, this is 6.2 inches below the city’s normal spring rainfall.

A cold front will move through northern Florida on Friday night into early Saturday, producing some rainfall. That may not be enough to extinguish the fires, however, and winds may still gust up to 20 mph even after the rain quickly fades.