Hundreds evacuated as wildfires rage in NW Florida
Firefighters battled a fire in Santa Rosa County near Milton, Florida, on May 6 that has scorched more than 250 acres.

Numerous wildfires in the Florida Panhandle have turned an already frightening time into a nightmare for thousands of Sunshine State residents. Between two separate blazes, over 1,000 homes have been evacuated, and dozens of structures have been destroyed.

The blazes have since forced over 1,500 residents to evacuate into unfamiliar areas and contend with all new social distancing requirements. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the blazes have destroyed 33 total structures thus far.

To further complicate matters, thick smoke forced a portion of Interstate 10 to close due to the blazes. That same thick smoke could be seen by satellites spreading over the Gulf Coast.

wildfire florida
© Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services via AP
In this image made from video taken May 6, 2020 by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, 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.
AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Samuhel said abnormally dry conditions in recent weeks set up the state for a dangerous fire situation.

"The western Florida Panhandle has barely seen a drop of rain this month," Samuhel said. "Some places have not had significant rainfall since the middle of April. Strong winds in recent days helped fires spread."

The state's largest fire, dubbed the Five Mile Swamp Fire in Santa Rosa County, was fueled by gusty winds and low humidity, according to the Florida Forest Service (FFS). According to the FFS, firefighters from around the state have been called to assist in battling the blaze.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to Santa Rosa County on Thursday to assess the situation, where met with emergency officials for an hour.

According to a Tuesday press release, the fire began on Monday as a prescribed burn at a private residence. However, a catastrophic recipe of conditions fanned the blaze over 2,000 acres, only 35% of which has been contained as of Friday morning.

Those orders for the 1,100 Santa Rosa County evacuated residents have pushed people to evacuation centers like the Milton Community Center.

"Do not let COVID-19 prevent you from utilizing the community shelter if needed," the county said on Wednesday. "If the community center is your best available refuge from the wildfire, follow CDC guidelines for physical distancing and disease prevention."

In Walton County, less than 70 miles away, a 575-acre fire known as the Mussett Bayou Fire was at 65% containment on Thursday morning, according to the Walton County Emergency Management.

Fire Marshall Sammy Sanchez said on Thursday morning that the fire grew rapidly on Wednesday and, aided by the wind, jumped Highway 98 into a neighborhood. Officials opened South Walton High School as an evacuation shelter.

Authorities said 18 structures have been destroyed in the area thus far. According to local news outlets, the official cause of the fire is said to be the burning of illegal materials.

"It boils down to an illegal burning," said Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson, according to WKRG.org. "Not a meth lab explosion, not atomic, nothing like that, it's just somebody burning when they shouldn't have been burning."

The Florida Panhandle will get an opportunity for some rain on Friday night as a storm system moves through the area.

"However, wind gusts may reach 30-35 mph, which even with higher humidity, can lead to rapid fire spread. What the area really needs is rain," Samuhel said. "Unfortunately, the area is in for another stretch of dry weather through most of next week with occasionally gusty winds. Meanwhile, tropical moisture will target South Florida with very heavy rain this weekend which will help with the drought and fire situation there, but rainfall amounts across the rest of the state will be rather light."