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Hundreds Evacuated as Wildfires Rage in Florida Panhandle

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Firefighters in the Florida Panhandle have been battling wildfires that forced some 1,600 people to evacuate from their homes, and a stretch of Interstate 10 remained closed in both directions Thursday morning due to smoke, authorities said.

A more than 575-acre fire in Walton County prompted about 500 people to evacuate. Authorities there said multiple structures were lost in the fire, which was 65% contained Thursday morning.

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said during a Wednesday night news conference that those who were asked to leave their home but had no place to go were sent to South Walton High School.

On Wednesday, some 1,100 people were asked to evacuate in neighboring Santa Rosa County due to a wildfire that broke out Monday afternoon. Spokeswoman Brandi Bates told the Pensacola News late Wednesday that some homes had already been damaged by fire, though she did not have an exact number or extent of damage. She said 336 homes were in the direct path of the fire, as of 6:30 p.m.

High winds and low humidity caused that blaze, east of Pensacola, to expand 10 times in size, the Florida Forest Service said in a statement. The fire started as a prescribed burn but quickly grew out of control, news outlets reported.

The Forest Service said multiple structures have been lost in the 2,000-acre Santa Rosa County fire, and authorities recommended residents south of Interstate 10 to evacuate. The agency did not make clear how many people have been evacuated from the area. So far, about 20% of the fire has been contained, authorities said.

The evacuation order will remain in effect until noon Thursday and then will be reevaluated at that time, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said in a statement.

"This is an extremely dangerous and fast-moving wildfire situation that is evolving rapidly, so everyone in the affected area should follow directions from state and local officials," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Almost all of Florida has had less-than-usual rainfall this year. National Weather Service meteorologist Jack Cullen told The Times the dryness helped fuel the fires Wednesday. Cullen, who is based in Mobile, Alabama, said the wind is the real culprit.

"What made this (fire) today was the wind, to go along with the dry conditions and low humidity," Cullen said of the fire near Pensacola.

There have been no reports of injuries or deaths.

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