Firefighters on Wednesday welcomed much-needed rain as a wildfire burning in the Florida Panhandle is threatening areas that were battered by Hurricane Michael in 2018, officials said.
The Bertha Swamp Road Fire swelled to more than 33,000 acres and was only 20% contained as of the evening, fire officials said. There was some good news: Rainfall allowed firefighters to establish containment lines in areas not previously accessible.
“The weather forecast calls for increased rainfall through tomorrow morning before tapering off,” the forest service said in an evening statement. “While the rain being seen now is good, increased winds and low humidity are expected this weekend, which means the wildfire threat remains, and residents should remain cautious.
The Bertha Swamp Road Fire, the largest currently burning in the panhandle, has moved through land that’s covered by “thick, dry, and dead trees and vegetation left behind from Hurricane Michael,” the Florida Forest Service said.
The powerful hurricane claimed the lives of at least 36 people across Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia in 2018 after making landfall as a Category 5 storm.
“It’s the storm that keeps on giving and giving,” Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said Tuesday. “It’s like a ghost, we can’t get rid of the damn thing. If you look at the path of the storm that it has taken when it hit here in October of 2018, it’s the exact same path the fire is taking.”
The Bertha Swamp Road Fire was sparked in Gulf County and spread to Bay and Calhoun counties just east of Panama City, a popular tourist destination, fire officials have said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis activated a state of emergency in all three counties.
The Bertha Swamp Road Fire is one of three that comprise the Chipola Complex Fire, along with the Adkins Avenue Fire and the Star Avenue Fire, officials said. The complex fire has scorched more than 34,000 acres in all. The Adkins Avenue Fire has burned 875 acres and is 85% contained, and the Star Avenue Fire is about 200 acres and 95% contained, the forest service said.
A strike team of heavy bulldozers continues to establish and improve containment lines, officials said.
Over the weekend, the fires forced nearly 1,100 homes to be evacuated, though all evacuation orders for the Adkins Avenue and Star Avenue fires have been lifted.
The Broad Branch community near Kinard in Calhoun County was evacuated Tuesday due to the Bertha Swamp Road Fire, officials said.
“Over the last few days, gusty winds have picked up in the early afternoon and lasted through the evening, causing erratic fire behavior. Weather conditions today are no different and forced additional evacuations in Calhoun County,” the forest service said.
“While the weather forecast in the coming days calls for a possibility for rain, it will not be enough to decrease the wildfire threat any time soon.”
CNN’s Jamiel Lynch, Amanda Musa and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.