Florida wildfires force hundreds to evacuate their homes

Experts say dry conditions and shredded trees left over from a 2018 hurricane in the US state are to blame for the blazes.

Person standing in front of scorched home
Hurricane Michael left behind some 72 million tonnes of thick vegetation that has dried up after months of little to no rainfall in Florida [Mike Fender/USA Today Network via Reuters]

Hundreds of residents in the US state of Florida were evacuated from their homes after a rash of wildfires that ignited dead vegetation swept through the area.

The blazes across Florida’s Panhandle on Monday scorched 4,800 hectares (12,000 acres) of land and were 10 percent contained as the fire burned near communities east of Panama City, Florida Forest Service spokesperson Joe Zwierzchowski said.

“We have another day of pretty steady winds pushing fire toward these communities,” he said during a news conference. “Increased cloud cover, increased humidity should help tap down some of the fire behaviour we have seen.”

No injuries or fatalities have been reported.

The wildfires come amid rising concerns over the effects of droughts and climate change in many parts of the United States. Experts believe the latest blazes were fuelled by dead vegetation and timber left behind from Hurricane Michael, which struck the Panhandle in 2018.

The Category 5 storm left behind some 72 million tonnes of thick vegetation, which has been dried by drought-like conditions in the area.

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

Michael was the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the US since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and only the fourth on record, when it tore through Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base in October 2018. The hurricane was directly responsible for 16 deaths and about $25bn in damage in the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

People pouring water on blaze
The fires and smoke have forced the evacuation of about 700 homes and a nursing home in Panama City [Mike Fender/USA Today Network via Reuters]

It also left behind tonnes of shredded and uprooted trees in the Florida Panhandle, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried said at the news conference.

“Hurricane Michael left an additional threat to our communities — wildfires,” Fried said. “Wildfires are never easy control. This added fuel and dense pockets of vegetation from Hurricane Michael will increase the intensity of wildfires.”

So far, the 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, officials said.

More than 200 firefighters and emergency workers from around the Panhandle worked overnight to strengthen containment lines and protect homes.

Dry conditions in Florida have created elevated fire dangers, with 148 active wildfires burning across the state this year, including the 1,214-hectare (3,000-acre) Bertha Swamp Fire in neighbouring Gulf County, according to the Florida Forest Service.

Source: News Agencies