Florida wildfires force hundreds to evacuate outside Pensacola, interstate closed

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Some 1,600 people have been forced to evacuate on Florida's Panhandle after raging wildfires burned several homes and left a portion of Interstate 10 closed on Thursday due to heavy smoke, according to officials.

One of the blazes broke out Monday afternoon in Santa Rosa County, named the Five Mile Swamp Fire, after a prescribed burn by a private contractor got out of control, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“The threat is far from over and there is no rain forecasted," Fried said. She asked residents to stay alert and “be ready for a wildfire impacting their neighborhood."

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Fried also urged people in the area to pack a bag with necessary items, including important paperwork, so they could evacuate as quickly as possible if conditions arise.

“This is an extremely dangerous and fast-moving wildfire situation that is evolving rapidly, so everyone in the affected area should follow directions from state and local officials,” she told reporters.

Fire and smoke rise from trees alongside a road in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Wildfires raging in the Florida Panhandle have forced nearly 500 people to evacuate from their homes, authorities said.

Fire and smoke rise from trees alongside a road in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Wildfires raging in the Florida Panhandle have forced nearly 500 people to evacuate from their homes, authorities said. (Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services via AP)

The Florida Forest Service said in a statement that the blaze east of Pensacola expanded to 10 times its size due to high winds and low humidity since Wednesday morning.

“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.”

So far, multiple buildings have been lost in the 2,000-acre fire, and authorities recommended that residents south of Interstate 10 evacuate. About 20 percent of the 2,000-acre fire has been contained, authorities said.

Some 1,100 people were asked to evacuate from the area, but a few have since been allowed to return home. 
Officials have confirmed 17 structures, including 13 homes, were destroyed so far in that blaze.

Authorities told WEAR-TV on Wednesday that some people were being saved from "life or death" situations.

Fire officials told FOX10 that crews are using 18 tractor/plow units, three helicopters, and crews from several fire departments in the area to fight the blaze.

Fire and smoke rise from trees alongside a road in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Wildfires raging in the Florida Panhandle have forced nearly 500 people to evacuate from their homes, authorities said.

Fire and smoke rise from trees alongside a road in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Wildfires raging in the Florida Panhandle have forced nearly 500 people to evacuate from their homes, authorities said. (Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services via AP)

Crews from other areas of Florida, including Jacksonville, are assisting firefighters who've been working long hours since Monday.

The blaze caused officials to close Interstate 10 on Wednesday from Exit 22 to Exit 31. The highway was still closed as of Thursday afternoon.

The Five Mile Swamp Fire could burn for the next several days, according to FOX10.

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Almost all of Florida has had less-than-usual rain this year. The National Weather Service (NWS) issued a red-flag warning for the Panhandle area on Wednesday due to dry and windy conditions that cause dangerous fire conditions

NWS meteorologist Jack Cullen told The Tampa Bay Times that the dryness helped fuel the fires on Wednesday. Cullen, who is based in Mobile, Alabama, said the wind was the real culprit.

Around 500 people were ordered to evacuate from a wildfire in Walton County, Fla. on Wednesday.

Around 500 people were ordered to evacuate from a wildfire in Walton County, Fla. on Wednesday. (Walton County Emergency Management)

“What made this (fire) today was the wind, to go along with the dry conditions and low humidity,” Cullen told the newspaper.

In nearby Walton County, firefighters were battling another 575-acre blaze.

Around 500 people were ordered to evacuate from a wildfire in Walton County, Fla. on Wednesday.

Around 500 people were ordered to evacuate from a wildfire in Walton County, Fla. on Wednesday. (Walton County Emergency Management)

More than 500 people had to be evacuated from the area. Fried said about 33 structures have been damaged so far in the Walton County fire.

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On Thursday morning, Walton County Emergency Management said on Facebook that the blaze was 65 percent contained.

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said during a Wednesday night news conference that those who were asked to leave their home but had no place to go were sent to South Walton High School.

There have been no reports of injuries or deaths as a result of the fires.

A red flag warning was issued for the area due to windy and dry conditions that allowed for peak wildfire conditions.

A red flag warning was issued for the area due to windy and dry conditions that allowed for peak wildfire conditions. (Walton County Emergency Management)

According to forecasters from the NWS Weather Prediction Center, conditions that lead to the raging fires on Wednesday are forecast to continue.

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"Lowering humidity and gusty winds will also help elevate the risk of wildfires over parts of Florida," the WPC said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.