By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
As a wildfire continued to ravage the Florida Panhandle this week, and despite the absence of any state-issued burn bans, local fire officials warned that conditions are approaching the stage where any type of outdoor fire could lead to disaster.
“It’s dry, but we’re not technically in a drought,” said Atmore Fire Department Capt. Daniel Love. “There hasn’t been any drought advisory or burn notices issued yet, but I wouldn’t burn, especially with the low humidity and the wind we’re having.”
The dry air, stiff winds and only sporadic rainfall across Lower Alabama and northern Florida have officials concerned, especially in light of the Five Mile Swamp Fire that had burned for more than a week and charred more than 2,200 acres of Santa Rosa County, Fla. as midweek approached.
That blaze started as a controlled burn, but strong wind gusts pushed the flames across the rain-starved ecosystem, causing the fire to quickly spread and rage out of control. Although the fire started innocently enough, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services officials have launched a criminal investigation.
Officials reported that “about 40 percent” of the fire — one of several that have plagued the northwestern portion of the Sunshine State — had been contained as the week started.
AFD Chief Ron Peebles said one city firefighter — AJ Beachy — had spent a couple of days as a volunteer in the effort to quell the fire, which had destroyed at least 14 homes and forced the evacuation of hundreds of Panhandle residents, but no official request had been made for local firemen.
Peebles agreed that continued high humidity, strong winds and lack of rainfall could lead to a burn advisory or outright ban on outdoor burning until conditions for wildfire lessen.
“We need a good, soaking rain,” the AFD chief said. “If we have another week or so with the conditions we have now, it could get bad enough for a ban. Right now, we’re just recommending that people use common sense when they need to burn something outside.”