Florida Panhandle wildfires force at least 500 evacuations

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SANTA ROSA COUNTY — Wildfires are burning parts of the Florida Panhandle on Thursday, damaging or destroying an unspecified number of buildings and forcing hundreds of people to flee, officials said.

Two fires are tearing through Santa Rosa and Walton counties, which are between the cities of Pensacola and Panama City Beach.

In Santa Rosa County, the Five Mile Swamp Fire — spurred by high winds and low humidity — has burned about 2,000 acres east of Avalon Beach since it began Monday and destroyed “numerous structures,” the state agriculture department said.

A number of rural homes were in or near the burning area outlined by a map from the state’s forest service. The fire was burning on either side of Interstate 10. It’s not immediately clear how many, if any, homes were damaged.

People south of I-10 have been asked to evacuate through at least part of Thursday, state officials said.

Officials closed parts of I-10 Wednesday, in part because smoke made it difficult for drivers to see, the state transportation department said. Nine miles of the highway still were closed Thursday morning, CNN affiliate WKRG reported.

Panhandle resident Rebekah Spivey said Wednesday she was leaving her home with her two children as flames got uncomfortably close to her area.

“This is literally everything I have,” Spivey told CNN affiliate WEAR about belongings in her house. “Trying to figure out what I would take. I guess things can be replaced.”

The blaze was 20% contained as of Wednesday night, the agriculture department said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will visit Santa Rosa County on Thursday to receive a briefing from local officials, and would ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give financial aid to the county.

500 homes evacuated in Walton County

In Walton County, a fire that started Wednesday was burning near US 98 not far from the community of Santa Rosa Beach, damaging or destroying an unspecified number of buildings on either side of the highway, the agriculture department said.

About 500 homes were evacuated from the area, and part of the highway was closed for a time Wednesday before being reopened Thursday morning, transportation and fire officials said.

A third fire, in Escambia County, had burned more than 300 acres Wednesday just northwest of Pensacola, near the Florida-Alabama line, but was not immediately threatening homes, and no evacuations were ordered, WEAR reported.

Details about the fires’ causes weren’t immediately available.

Wayne Keene watched the Escambia County fire Wednesday from a distance at his home along Perdido Bay. He told WEAR the smoke “filled the sky.”

“Small fires, we have them here all the time, especially the prescribed burns. But they never got that big,” he told WEAR.

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