As winds pushed the fire south toward the Escambia Bay, some of the 1,100 people who were told to evacuate on Wednesday afternoon were gradually allowed to return to their properties to begin damage assessments.
The Five Mile Swamp Fire continued its assault on Santa Rosa County Thursday, burning through miles of forest and endangering hundreds of homes, as firefighters and political leaders from across the state descended upon Milton to begin evaluating damage and picking up what pieces they could.
As winds pushed the fire south toward the Escambia Bay, some of the 1,100 people who were told to evacuate on Wednesday afternoon were gradually allowed to return to their properties to begin damage assessments. The fire destroyed at least 17 structures and damaged dozens more, though officials were still moving through the area to assess damage and make sure people were out of harm's way.
"We just took a tour with (Gov. Ron DeSantis), and I can't tell you how many houses were burnt to the foundation," said Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson, speaking at a staging area at a church just on the edge of the fire. "So when you get a deputy or somebody at your door saying, 'Leave, it's time to go,' we're not playing around, this is a fast moving fire, and we don't want to lose any lives."
Santa Rosa County Emergency Management Director Brad Baker said that at least 13 of the structures that were destroyed were homes, but that the number will likely grow as officials identify more structures.
"We are continuing to work that number and do damage assessments," Baker said. "So you know, those 13 people will probably need a little longer-term sheltering. We haven't even got to the point of, do you have insurance or not or even the ability for the insurance company to come in and look now, so we'll continue to work with our citizens."
Residents south of Mary Kitchens Road on Avalon Boulevard and Garcon Point Road, and on the west side of Avalon, were allowed to return to their homes by mid-day Thursday. With warnings to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice, so too were residents who live in houses from Indian Bayou to Mary Kitchens Road.
The 366 residences east of Avalon, south of Interstate 10, and north of Mary Kitchens, are in the area of most concern and asked to continue the evacuation.
On the charred land the fire left behind Thursday, miles and miles of pine trees were turned to crispy toothpicks, and remnants of smoldering fires were still burning.
Firefighters from across the state arrived early Thursday to help put out the remaining small fires as forestry crews worked to contain the 2,000-acre blaze that was being pushed south by winds.
Some homes were burnt beyond recognition, leaving behind only a concrete foundation and a toy or two in the yard. Others were spared by just inches, with firefighters stopping some fires just as the flames lapped up against front doors and porch swings.
"It was just an extremely dry situation. You had very, very dry conditions on the ground, you had winds that were unbelievably strong," said Todd Schroeder, a spokesman for the Florida Forest Service, standing in front of a foundation that had been a home just 24 hours earlier. "So those two things combined helped to grow this fire in a very short period of time, from something that started with 250 acres (Wednesday) morning to what is now 2,000 acres and counting."
The erratic fire, which began Monday as an escaped controlled burn and ballooned Wednesday to more than 2,000 acres, was fueled by low humidity and moderate wind gusts Thursday. It was 35% contained Thursday evening, though officials warned that it could be a long time before the fire is fully contained.
"It will be many days — weeks — before (it is fully out)," Baker said. "We're not expecting any substantial rainfall, so hopefully we'll get a little bit (Friday) night or the next night, a very little bit, but anything will help. And we'll probably have a breather day and then we'll gear up for whatever the next weather environment brings us."
Florida's Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis toured the damage Thursday, and DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried also came to the county to meet with local officials and get an update on the fire.
More than 60 forest service firefighters have been brought in from across the state, including places like St. John's, Flagler and Clay counties, to help local crews battling the fire, Florida Forest Service Director Erin Albury said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday authorized federal funds to reimburse costs to Florida to fight the fire.
This authorization makes FEMA grant funding available to reimburse 75% of the eligible firefighting costs for managing, mitigating and controlling the fires. Eligible costs can include labor, equipment and supplies used for fighting the fire and costs for emergency work such as evacuations and sheltering, police barricading and traffic control.
Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Ron Livingston said the closed portions of I-10 from exit 22 to exit 31 will remain closed as long as the forest service decides it is necessary.
"At the point that they believe that we can open the interstate, that's when we'll open it," Livingston said.
Traffic continues to be agonizingly slow on the detour routes around the interstate closure along U.S. 90, U.S. 98 and Avalon Boulevard, residents reported.
Although the fire is far from over, the nightmare for some residents is just beginning as they return to their homes and properties and find out what was lost and what could be saved.
The American Red Cross was at the Emergency Operations Center on Thursday to help families who were displaced, providing money, meals and hotel options to those who lost their homes or whose homes were damaged.
Daniel Felder lives in a home on his landlord's property off Garcon Point Road. He said he was out on the property Wednesday afternoon and saw smoke, and then within a matter of minutes fire was surrounding the property.
"It was all farmland. The fences are still burning down, the landlord (Jim Skinner) had ducks in a pen and they’re just gone, burnt to a crisp," Felder said. "All the other chickens and ducks are OK, same with the cows."
Felder said he was unable to escape the property in time, so he grabbed his cat, Bowser, and jumped into a pond on the property.
"I put my cat in a canoe and he and I were just out in the pond while the fire burned around us," he said.
Skinner, his landlord, was hospitalized with smoke inhalation and is expected to be OK. Felder and Bowser are staying at a friend's house while they pick up the pieces and figure out what to do next.
The two homes on the property are scorched but not destroyed, while the farmland and a barn were all destroyed. The property is still not accessible as the fire continues to burn around it.
Felder, fighting back tears, said he’s just "numb" from the experience.
"I’ve never really been through something like this. I’ve been through hurricanes and other stuff," he said. "Just be safe, do what you can to help everyone out. We’re a community. We need to stick together."