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Walton County bans outdoor burning indefinitely after last week’s destructive wildfire

Jim Thompson
jthompson@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — After a wildfire destroyed 34 homes in south Walton County and caused other extensive damage across its 343-acre footprint last week, county commissioners on Tuesday unanimously enacted a ban against outdoor burning.

The fire is nearing 100 percent containment after nearly a week.

The burn ban, which will remain in effect indefinitely, prohibits all outdoor burning except the use of enclosed gas or charcoal grills for cooking, and burning authorized by the Florida Forest Service.

RELATED: PHOTOS: Damage from the South Walton wildfires

Commissioners also unanimously approved a local state of emergency declaration as a means of accessing federal and state reimbursement for expenses associated with battling the Mussett Bayou fire.

RELATED: ‘It’s just stuff’ Santa Rosa Beach carpenter, family lose house he built in South Walton fire

The emergency declaration, backdated to May 6, the day the fire started, and set to expire Wednesday, when firefighting operations are expected to wind down, “simply gives us access to state and federal funding sources, and puts us in the proper position to recapture as much funding as we possibly can,” Walton County Administrator Larry Jones explained to commissioners.

RELATED: South Walton residents escape fire; home reduced to smoking rubble

The South Walton Fire Department remained in a support role with the Florida Forest Service on Tuesday as “hot spots” within the fire area continued to flare up.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire was listed by the Florida Forest Service as 90 percent contained, with mop-up operations ongoing. No update of the fire’s status was immediately available on Tuesday afternoon.

In other Tuesday action related to the fire, commissioners unanimously approved a waiver of some county application and permitting fees related to restoration and rebuilding of structures with the area affected by the fire.

In the same vote, commissioners OK’d the temporary use of recreational vehicles by property owners within the area affected by the fire.

“We will work very closely with these individuals,” Jones told commissioners, saying prior to the vote that the fee waiver and recreational vehicle measure would be “a grand gesture on the part of the board to show these folks that we do care and we are willing to do what we can to help.”

Prior to the commission’s Tuesday vote on the burn ban, Walt Bowers, the Walton County forestry area supervisor for the Florida Forest Service, said his agency doesn’t want a “knee-jerk reaction to every fire,” but he went on to point out that the current situation in Walton County is concerning.

“The situation has been building, to a certain degree,” Bowers said. “We started off with some fires the week before the Mussett Bayou fire, and it seemed like the fires ... were getting a little more aggravating to control, with a little bit more potential to them.”

“You could just feel it building” prior to the Mussett Bayou fire, Bowers added.

“My agency is getting eaten up with illegal burns,” Bowers told commissioners, adding that “people are hyped up, they’re worried.”

But, Bowers continued, some of the calls from worried citizens about relatively minor burning issues have meant that he sometimes couldn’t get firefighters to blazes that truly needed work.

Weather, implicated in the spread of the Mussett Bayou fire, remains a concern as well, Bowers said.

“There’s no moisture in the foreseeable future,” he said, adding, “At this time, I don’t see anything improving, and I feel comfortable saying that within the next five to seven days.”

According to the Florida Forest Service, the Mussett Bayou fire was the result of an “illegal material burn.”

The Walton County Sheriff’s Office was indicating late last week that an arrest in the incident is imminent, but there was no word of any arrest as of late Tuesday afternoon.