Okaloosa, Walton firefighters working day, night assisting with Chipola Complex wildfires
Firefighters from Okaloosa and Walton counties have spent countless hours this week helping battle multiple wildfires burning to the east in the Florida Panhandle.
Agencies based in Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Ponce de Leon, Santa Rosa Beach and at least six other cities provided resources and personnel to put out the flames of the Chipola Complex wildfires, which includes the Adkins Avenue Fire and the Bertha Swamp Road Fire.
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Several agencies rapidly deployed crews to the area when the wildfires broke out last week, and a strike team of about 20 people from multiple fire departments was continuing to battle the wildfires Thursday.
“We all get into this job for helping people,” Walton County Fire Rescue Operations Chief Austin Pugh said. “Especially as firefighters, we love to help our brothers and sisters at other agencies. We know that an incident like that is very taxing on their resources and their personnel.”
Fire departments provide mutual aid across jurisdictional boundaries when an emergency response exceeds local resources. Crews arrived in Bay County last Friday within an hour of a mutual aid request to help contain the Adkins Avenue Fire, which started on the east side of Panama City.
“Most emergencies that happen can be handled by local response agencies,” Fort Walton Beach Deputy Fire Chief Jeremy Morgan said. “But it gets to a point like this one where it quickly overtaxes the existing responders and they need more extensive personnel or equipment to get it under control.”
The fire, which covered about 1,400 acres in the Springfield and Panama City area on Saturday, was about 85% contained at 875 acres as of Thursday morning, according to the Florida Forest Service.
But a massive blaze that broke out in Gulf County further strained resources as the fire spread into Calhoun and Bay counties on Saturday. The Bertha Swap Road Fire had surged to cover more than 33,000 acres by Wednesday morning.
Morgan said four firefighters from Fort Walton Beach provided coverage and protection for about 12 hours straight before strike teams from central and northeastern Florida arrived in the area last Saturday.
High fire danger persists in Panhandle
Once the strike teams arrived, some crews returned home, where they faced their own fire danger due to high winds and dry conditions.
“That was our main concern in getting our mutual aid departments back as soon as possible, because we were still under that heightened alert for wildland fires here,” North Bay Fire Control District Fire Chief Byron Bennett said.
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Morgan said some firefighters worked overtime to avert fire danger while crews were in Bay County. Walton County Fire Rescue deployed two firetrucks with full crews to Bay County last Friday, and multiple fires broke out in Walton County that same day.
“Over the last week we’ve had an uptick in outside fires,” Pugh said. “The day that we deployed down to Bay County, we had a couple up here that went from 5 acres to 20 acres, but we were able to be aggressive and we contained those fires.”
The fires were contained with the help of the Liberty Volunteer Fire Department, DeFuniak Springs Fire Department and Argyle Volunteer Fire Department.
A burn ban was issued by the Walton County Sheriff's Office last Friday due to the "emergency conditions" and as outside fires continued to pop up across the Panhandle.
“We know that Forestry has pretty much got all of their assets in Bay and Calhoun counties," Pugh said. "So we get an outside fire here, and we’ve got to be aggressive and try to contain the fire.”
The ban was extended by the Walton County Board of Commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday. Any violation could result in criminal charges or fines.
“We’ll probably re-evaluate toward the end of the week," Pugh said Wednesday. "But we’ve got to get some rain in."
Strike team deploys to Bay County
Bennett began working with the state Emergency Operations Center to coordinate a strike team from Okaloosa and Walton counties as many of the crews deployed to the area last weekend returned home.
Strike Team 3101 is comprised of personnel from Crestview Fire Department, Okaloosa Island Fire Rescue, North Bay Fire Control District, East Niceville Fire District, Fort Walton Beach Fire Department and Walton County Fire Rescue.
Firefighters were pulled from different departments across the area to ensure they still had enough resources to battle any blazes that broke out back home.
“There’s always firefighters willing to help out. We didn’t have any shortage of firefighters willing to go and eager to go,” Bennett said. “A lot of those individuals were called in off-duty or volunteered to go.”
By Wednesday the WCFR had deployed 30 people and eight apparatuses to assist with the wildfires. Six people were deployed as a part of the strike team.
“We are in a position in our department to where we can provide quite a few apparatuses, quite a few personnel for an extended period of time,” Pugh said. “We’re here for them and we want to do our best to provide for them."
The team headed to Bay County about 9 a.m. on Monday to help with the massive Bertha Swap Road Fire. Bennett said the team's main focus has been to protect homes in evacuated neighborhoods from any embers or ash that could ignite house fires.
More than 1,000 homes in Bay County were evacuated last weekend because of the wildfires. The Adkins Avenue Fire destroyed two homes and damaged another 12 last Friday.
Some strike team members also have been assisting with fire suppression as crews work to bring the wildfires to 100% containment. A third fire also sprang up on Star Avenue last Sunday.
The Star Avenue Fire grew to 250 acres as a result of high winds and dry conditions. The fire was down to 197 acres and 95% contained Thursday morning, the Forest Service said.
“Some of our brush truck units are able to get out in the field and assist the Division of Forestry with any type of fire suppression they may need,” Bennett said. “Or if it flanks around and starts endangering things, then they’re able to put that out.”
The main challenge has been thick vegetation and dead trees left behind from Hurricane Michael, which has added fuel to the fires as high winds persist in the area. Bennett said crews have been working 12-hour shifts to get the fires under control.
“They are assigned for 12-hour shifts and then they’ll go and rest,” he said. “I think yesterday (Tuesday) they worked close to 15 hours because they had so much wind and weather deterioration getting ready for the rain.”
Battle to contain wildfires continues
Strike Team 3101 was initially expected to be deployed for about five days, meaning crews would return back home Friday. But Bennett said the strike team may stay and assist over the weekend if there is a need.
“It’s really important that we have these mutual aid agreements and that we all work hand-in-hand together,” Bennett said. “We want to make sure that when our neighbors need help that we can assist them and give them the help because the next storm or next wildland fire could be here, and we would need that help.”
Rainfall on Wednesday helped firefighters reach areas of the wildfires not previously accessible, but vegetation left behind by Hurricane Michael continued to pose a fire threat in the Panhandle.
The Chipola Complex is the largest wildfire since Hurricane Michael hit the area in 2018, according to the Florida Forest Service.
Without additional notable rainfall, the debris on the ground will dry out and quickly serve as fuel for the fires, the Forest Service said in a Thursday morning news release. The Bertha Swap Road Fire was 20% contained Thursday morning.
Wildland firefighters will continue to improve containment lines on the Chipola Complex and monitor any new activity. Bennett said residents across the Panhandle need to stay weather aware over the weekend and pay attention to any burn bans that are in place.
“Be aware of the conditions before you burn and make sure that you take all the precautions if you do burn,” Bennett said. “Because this could happen at a drop of a hat, as we’ve seen this go from 60 acres to 33,000 acres in less than a week.”