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How drought is creating ripe conditions for wildfires in Northwest Florida

by Annie Blanks, Pensacola News-Journal |

Conditions are ripe for fires to continue burning throughout the Panhandle and residents should take extreme caution when doing any type of burn over at least the next couple of weeks, according to an expert with the Florida Forest Service.

Drought conditions and low humidity are allowing for Escambia County's Hurst Hammock Fire and Santa Rosa County's Five Mile Swamp Fire to continue smoldering, although fire crews had both 90 percent contained as of Tuesday. But anywhere in the area is just one spark away from another catastrophic blaze. 

“The biggest condition that we have going on from a fire standpoint is going to be the fact that we haven’t had rain in a while, and our drought index is starting to climb,” said Brian Camposano, incident fire behavior analyst with the Florida Forest Service. “Every day that passes from here on out without rain is a day that fuels are getting more dry, the ground is getting more dry.”  

"Fuels" in a fire are the pine needles, pine cones, brush and other vegetation on the forest floor that allow fire to spread. The drier the fuel – the longer it's gone without rain – the more likely fire is to spread.

The fuel for the Hurst Hammock and Five Mile Swamp fires has mostly burned up, leaving what fire experts call "muck" and "duff" underneath. The muck and duff are generally flammable and can smoke and smolder for months without a good soaking rain, but the area's water table underneath the ground is close enough to the surface that it has so far prevented the muck and duff from catching fire. 

“If the duff or muck catches on fire, there aren’t enough water on any of our trucks loaded a million times over to put out that fire,” Camposano said. 

To help prevent the spark of any additional fires, local officials are urging people to not burn yard debris or other household waste and be mindful of activities that could spark fires. Okaloosa and Walton counties instituted burn bans Tuesday morning, and Santa Rosa County is expected to discuss a burn ban at its Thursday meeting. 

“If there’s no burn ban in place, residents can still burn piles of yard clippings and things like that without permits from us, but it’s up to them to have discretion,” Camposano said. “Even on days like today, while it’s beautiful outside, if things escape, it can turn bad quickly.”

The wildfires in Santa Rosa and Walton counties last week destroyed a total of 47 homes and damaged dozens more. 

The Mussett Bayou fire in south Walton County that claimed 33 homes began with a man burning “illegal materials” on a day when no burn permits were being issued. The Florida Department of Agriculture is investigating and charges are pending, according to Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson.

The Five Mile Swamp Fire in Santa Rosa County that incinerated 14 homes ignited when a permitted prescribed burn on private property got out of control. The Florida Department of Agriculture has launched a criminal investigation into that blaze, although officials have said the fire was properly permitted. 

And in Escambia County, a fire that destroyed a longtime lawn care business Monday is thought to have been ignited when debris fell out of a burn bucket.

The fires in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are currently in "good shape" and state fire crews are preparing to hand the reins over to local fire authorities once it's completely safe to do so.

But still, with weather conditions over at least the next two weeks similar to what the area saw last week – when a 250-acre swamp fire was able to jump to 2,000 acres in the blink of an eye – Camposano cautioned not to let your guard down just yet. 

"The fire danger is still extremely high," he said. "And humidity is low."