PANAMA CITY, FLORIDA (AP) – Residents of hundreds of Florida Panhandle homes were evacuated as a wildfire destroyed two houses and damaged 12 others in an area that has spent years recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Michael, officials said on Saturday.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of downed trees from the 2018 hurricane, along with low humidity and strong winds, have created “the perfect storm” for hazardous fire conditions in Bay County, Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis said at a news conference in Panama City.
More than 200 firefighters and emergency workers from around the Panhandle worked overnight to strengthen containment lines and protect homes.
The agency has deployed more than a dozen tractor plow units as well as multiple helicopters, and burn bans were in effect in parts of the region, officials said in a news release.
At least 600 homes had been evacuated as of Saturday morning, but that figure was expected to grow as new neighbourhoods were placed under evacuation orders throughout the day.
DeSantis praised firefighters for saving scores of homes overnight.
“This is a really significant, fast-moving fire,” DeSantis said.
Michael was the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States (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 USD25 billion in damage in the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It also left behind 2.8 million acres 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.”
Officials with the Florida Forest Service said there was no timeline for when residents would be allowed to return to their homes.