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Firefighters battle to contain fire in Florida’s Panhandle

MILTON, Fla. (AP) — For two sleepless nights, Kelly Kniss had wondered what had become of her home in the Florida Panhandle and the two dozen hens she and her husband Ryan had left behind after authorities ordered them to grab what they could and flee to safety.

A wildfire was approaching, and they knew it was time to leave. They gathered what was important — their kids, two cats, two dogs and a few documents. They grabbed a couple days worth of clothes and drove out before the fire could stop them.

From a hotel room, Kniss watched real-time footage of the raging fire from a security camera installed at her home. The camera caught a worrisome scene: Firefighters at her home battling the blaze. She saw an outbuilding was on fire.

Then the camera went dark, and the worry set in.

On Friday morning images reappeared from the camera, and Kniss surmised that her home must still be standing. By the afternoon, when a stranger informed them that evacuation orders had been lifted, she and her husband Ryan hurried to return to their neighborhood to survey the damage.

“This is such a tragic thing going on. We did lose an outbuilding, for sure. But there are other people who have lost their homes. It’s a terrible terrible tragedy, that’s what it is,” Kniss said.

On Friday, authorities invited residents back to the most devastated areas overrun by a fire that had enveloped 2,200 acres of woods and homes. But they told returning residents to be ready to pull back out, should the fire again shift direction.

Fire crews were working to hold containment lines around the fire dubbed the Five Mile Swamp Fire, the largest of several blazes burning through the Florida Panhandle. The fire destroyed 14 homes, but authorities said there had been no deaths or injuries.

Despite continued concerns about the blaze, authorities reopened a stretch of Interstate 10 that had been blocked near Pensacola.

Winds were now gusting northward — away from the previously threatened neighborhoods but toward another inhabited area in Santa Rosa County.

“So far today, we’re able to keep fire within containment lines,” said Ludie Bond, a spokeswoman for the Florida Forest Service.

The firebreak was about a half-mile from a neighborhood, officials said. While no new evacuations have been issued, Bond urged residents to be ready to leave their homes should they be given the word to do so.

“People should be prepared and be ready,” she said.

That’s a lesson Daniel Felder no knows all too well, after escaping flames Wednesday when the fire invaded his neighborhood near Milton, Florida.

Felder recounted how the sky was glowing with sunlight, then grow dark as winds began to whip.

He stepped out into the road to watch the acrid smoke billow toward him. Ash started raining from the sky like light snow drifting in twilight.

Then came the crackle of fire, and he knew it was time to run.

“Next thing you know, the fire was right there,” said Felder, 45, recounting the minutes Wednesday afternoon when a raging fire swept through his bucolic wooded neighborhood.

Unable to flee, Felder and his landlord waded into a nearby pond until the fire passed.

The house was spared, but the fire took down a barn and turned the surrounding trees into a charred forest of blackened trunks.

On Friday, helicopter and tractor units continued to battle fires in the Panhandle that have forced hundreds of residents to flee, scorched thousands of acres and razed dozens of structures.

In Nearby Walton County, a 575-acre (233-hectare) fire in prompted about 500 people to evacuate, but that fire was now nearly contained.

The Santa Rosa County fire began Monday when a prescribed burn by a private contractor got out of control, Fried said. The conditions created a perfect storm for fire — low humidity and high winds.

“In Florida, when we’re seeing the gusty winds, it’s hurricane season, not necessarily fire season. So the recipe was just right for this fire to make a huge run,” Bond had said.