Escambia County wildfire prompts mandatory evacuations

Escambia County wildfire prompts mandatory evacuations

25 May 2013

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USA — An 80-acre wildfire in southwest Pensacola closed several roads and forced mandatory evacuations for dozens of residents on Saturday.

The fire broke out early in the morning in a swampy area off Giese Lane and quickly spread on both sides of Blue Angel Parkway, Florida Forest Service spokesman Joe Zwierzchowski said.

Nobody was injured, and no home were damaged by flames, he said, though the smoke and ensuing threat forced officials to evacuate residents living between U.S. 98 and Gulf Beach Parkway.

By about 5:30 p.m., the fire was mostly under control, and the evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Large plumes of smoke were visible for miles, changing color as pine trees in the area went up in flames.

The cause of the fire will be investigated, and firefighters monitored the blaze overnight to make sure it didn’t start to spread again. The smoke, which was very thick at the height of the fire’s power, was dissipating by Saturday afternoon.

Multiple local and state agencies set up shop in the Winn-Dixie parking lot on Blue Angel Parkway on Saturday. Escambia County Area Transit buses were on scene in case they needed to be used to evacuate residents. Emergency response vehicles and trailers were set up in case workers had to pull an all-nighter.

Officials at Perdido Bay United Methodist Church, which was set up to take in evacuees, said nobody showed up on Saturday afternoon.

They were prepared for the worst, but it thankfully never came.

“There was no damage whatsoever. We were very, very fortunate,” Zwierzchowski said.

But authorities said the smoldering marsh and smoke still may cause visibility issues on roads to the north and west of the fire.

“We’re going to see smoke from this for the coming days,” Zwierzchowski said.

On Saturday afternoon, Aileron Avenue, which is lined with homes and wooded property, was a ghost town. The smoke grew thick as the fire got worse, though two helicopters dropped water on the flames and dissipated the hazy air.

Escambia Fire Rescue firefighters parked in several areas on the road to make sure that flames didn’t get close to any homes.

Some residents left their sprinklers on to wet the grass.

Despite the mandatory evacuations, a few stayed, however, determined to make sure their homes weren’t damaged.

Billy Slavey, 49, said he and his family sprayed down the area surrounding his property as the smoke got thicker.

“We’ve got to take care of our property,” Slavey said.

Saturday’s fire started about a half mile away from another 35-acre that broke out Friday night off U.S. 98. That fire, which jumped the road, though the Forest Service contained it within a few hours.

Zwierzchowski said arson is suspected in Friday’s fire, but the fire did not spread and cause Saturday’s blaze.

“We’re not ruling anything out, but it’s not naturally related to (Saturday’s) fire,” Zwierzchowski said.

Nobody has been charged with starting Friday’s fire, and the state Department of Agricultural Law Enforcement is investigating, he said.

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