There is an active criminal investigation into the 2,000-plus acre Five Mile Swamp Fire in Santa Rosa County, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed Friday.


In an emailed statement, the agency declined to provide any specific detail on the subject or scope of the investigation.



"Our Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement investigates most wildfire incidents in the state of Florida," the statement said. "They are investigating, and it remains open and active. We do not have any updates at this time."


The wildfire began as a permitted, prescribed burn on a privately-owned and operated compensatory mitigation wetland in Santa Rosa County called the Pensacola Bay Mitigation Bank. In essence, a mitigation bank allows a public or private developer to offset the environmental impacts of new construction by investing in the preservation, enhancement, restoration or creation of a conservation habitat elsewhere in their area.


The Pensacola Bay Mitigation Bank is owned by The Westervelt Company, a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, based firm with about two dozen mitigation and conservation banks in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and California.


In an emailed statement on the Five Mile Swamp Fire, Westervelt said "the safety of those on site and the residents in the area is our first concern, and we are continuing to work with all state and local agencies to offer any assistance possible."


According to Westervelt, on Monday, a contractor began a 240-acre prescribed burn on the Pensacola Bay Mitigation Bank. The fire — reportedly aided by high winds and low humidity — soon spread out of control. By Friday, the blaze had grown to 2,180 acres, destroyed 14 homes and forced hundreds of evacuations.


On Thursday, a Westervelt representative said they did not have specific information available about the identity of the contractor who performed the burn.


The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services denied the News Journal's request for a copy of the original burn authorization permit, citing the associated documents as "active criminal investigative information" exempt from public record.


A Westervelt representative said Friday the company was unaware of any criminal investigation.


The Pensacola Bay Mitigation Bank is a 1,205-acre site contiguous to a state-owned conservation site called the Garcon Ecosystem Preserve. According to Westervelt, the carnivorous white-topped pitcher plant, a state endangered plant species, is located and protected within the mitigation bank, as is the panhandle lily.


"This bank is for wetland mitigation impacts, and some of things that are done on this site are exotic species control, tree planting and hydrology restoration," Westervelt said via email. "We have worked with contractors to do prescribed burns on this property before, as part of the management of the property to benefit habitat and species in the area."


At this time, it is unknown when the investigation will be completed, or when the wildfire will be safely contained. Around midday Friday, the Florida Forest Service reported the fire was 35% contained. Fourteen homes have been destroyed so far in the blaze.


Some previously evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes Friday, but Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried warned area residents to continue to monitor the wildfire and be prepared to evacuate as "this remains an extremely dangerous and evolving wildfire situation."


Kevin Robinson can be reached at krobinson4@pnj.com or 850-435-8527.