By Ron Brackett and Jan Wesner Childs
Some of the Florida Panhandle residents forced out by a wildfire were allowed to return home Thursday afternoon, but they were warned to remain vigilant as firefighters continue to battle the aggressive Five Mile Swamp Fire.
The Santa Rosa County fire was one of three large wildfires burning in northwest Florida Thursday. The other two are the 300-acre Hurst Hammock 2 Fire in Escambia County and the 575-acre Mussett Bayou Fire in Walton County.
The Five Mile Swamp Fire forced the closing of a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 10 through Santa Rosa County. The interstate remained closed Thursday afternoon. Traffic backed up for hours on U.S. Highway 90 and State Road 80, two of the detour routes.
The blaze, which had grown rapidly to more than 3 square miles, was 40% contained as of 12:30 p.m. Thursday CDT. On Wednesday, residents of at least 1,100 homes had been told to evacuate.
At least 17 houses and other buildings have been destroyed or damaged, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said at a briefing Thursday afternoon.
That number is sure to be higher, Santa Rosa County Emergency Management Director Brad Baker said at the briefing. He added that officials have confirmed at least 13 homes were destroyed.
Those families were being sheltered at hotels because of fears of the new coronavirus being spread at regular shelters, Baker said.
Gulf Power said more than 70 utility poles had burned and power was out in much of the area.