The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.
Amy Carter woke up Sunday to a firefighter pounding on her door.
Coming back from Tallahassee the day before, where her and her husband had gone out for his birthday, Carter thought it was neat, how the clouds in the area looked like smoke.
That is, until her husband pointed out that what she was seeing was actually smoke. Coming right from their neighborhood.
At the time, the 15-acre fire made them nervous, but wasn’t a cause for alarm. But at about 7 p.m., the wind kicked up what’s called a “pop up” – or a new area of fire off the contained section caused by blown embers – that quickly raced out of control, growing to 100-acres and burning overnight. By the morning, the smoke was creeping up to the treeline around Carter’ house.
“Our house was destroyed in Hurricane Michael, and now this,” Carter said, adding that her car was already packed with sentimental items and documents in case they had to flee.
Helped by a brisk wind and literal tons of fuel already on the ground, the wildfire quickly swelled to 500-acres by Sunday afternoon, at one point growing at a rate of about 200-acres-an-hour until firefighters, helped out by a spot of wet weather, wrangled it through firebreaks and two Florida Forest Service helicopters continuously dropping hundreds of gallons of water along the edges. The fire was particularly difficult to fight at first, officials said, because it was burning in a swampy area that was difficult to access with heavy equipment.
By 4 p.m. Sunday, the fire was 40 percent contained, though Melanie Banton, spokesperson for the Florida Forest Service’s Chipola office, said the fire will likely continue to smoulder for several days, or even weeks, after it’s contained and controlled, and FFS personnel will work in the area to “mop up” and monitor for pop ups. As of 7:30 p.m., it was still at 40 percent containment.
The fire, which sent up billows of black smoke visible all the way from the west end of the Beach, threatened 35 structures and prompted the evacuation of 20 homes, mostly from the Sandy Creek Air Park, where FFS helicopters flew in continuous loops, picking up water from a pond near the air strip and circling back over the burning forest. As the rain rolled in and the wind shifted, thick smoke clung to the ground, reducing visibility to the point where, from a distance, only the pinpoints of whirling red emergency lights on Bay County Fire trucks could be seen.
Watching from CR 2297, as little bits of burning ash blew through the wind and into her hair, Angela Davis sat on the hood of her SUV and worried about the homes in the Sandy Creek Air Park, many of which are still very heavily damaged, sporting blue tarps on their roofs six months after Hurricane Michael.
“We’ve had enough trouble with the storm,” she said. “I’d hate for them to lose their houses.”
Banton said that the cause of the fire hasn’t yet been determined, but residents in the area were quick to point the finger at a poorly-controlled debris burn.
Debris burning has been the likely cause of several small fires over the last few weeks. For portions of last week, Bay County was under a Red Flag Warning, meaning conditions were ripe for fires to quickly burn out of control and residents should avoid burning debris. Despite the warning, several small fires broke out throughout the week, including one on Friday in which crews had to step in to save a centuries old oak tree that survived Hurricane Michael, only to nearly catch on fire after a debris burn got out of hand.
While Sunday’s fire was certainly not the was FFS would like to see burns play out, Banton said that fires like the Allanton Fire ultimately do more good than harm to an ecosystem, and will clear out the dried out debris that has become a hazard around the county, eliminating pests and disease and clearing the way for healthier vegetation and wildlife. Long leaf pines, for example, rely on fire for their growth, and deer will often lick charred trees after a fire for an extra boost of nutrients.
“If they can contain this, if they can hold this, then these homes in this area will be a lot better off,” she said.
©2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)
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