No charges will be filed in Five Mile Swamp fire
No criminal charges will be filed in connection to last month's massive Five Mile Swamp Fire in Milton, according to a full report of the fire and a copy of the prescribed burn documents obtained by the News Journal via a public records request.
The fire, which consumed nearly 2,300 acres at its peak, destroyed 14 homes and caused more than $1.9 million in property damage, was determined to have been started accidentally when a prescribed burn got out of control.
"Based on conversations with the FFS (Florida Forest Service) and the State Attorney’s Office, there was determined to be no gross negligence or criminal element found involving the burn," wrote investigator Clifford Oram in his report issued by the Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement. "The State Attorney’s Office has declined to pursue any criminal charges."
The person who was issued the prescribed burn, Lamar Munroe of Munroe Forest and Wildlife Management out of Chipley, was contracted to burn 243 acres on a property owned by Westervelt Ecological.
Munroe was issued the permit May 4, which is when he began the controlled burn. According to the report, he had a crew of at least six people on hand, as well as water suppression equipment, a brush truck and a bulldozer. The report also noted "that the personnel and equipment on the plan and present the day of the fire normally would exceed minimum requirements."
The burn officially escaped at 2:15 p.m. May 4, and that's when the forest service was called. The report said two FFS employees stopped by to check on the burn — a common occurrence in prescribed burns — just an hour and a half before it escaped.
"There are no power lines overhead, no railroads nearby, and other than the burn crew, (it is) not a travelled roadway by normal traffic," Oram wrote in his report. "The only source of ignition that can be derived from all the information I have is that a jump or spot from the Munroe control burn was the ignition source for this fire."
Munroe did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.
The fire was contained to the swampy area for two days, until May 6, when low humidity and high winds blew the fire out of control. That's when it jumped Interstate 10 and threatened more than 1,000 homes, forcing mandatory evacuations and prompting a multi-week response from fire crews across the state. The fire was officially declared 100% over a month later at 10 p.m. June 5.
The property on which the burn began was a privately owned and operated compensatory mitigation wetland in Santa Rosa County called the Pensacola Bay Mitigation Bank.
In essence, a mitigation bank allows a public or private developer to offset the environmental impacts of new construction by investing in the preservation, enhancement, restoration or creation of a conservation habitat elsewhere in their area
The Pensacola Bay Mitigation Bank is owned by The Westervelt Co., a firm based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with about two dozen mitigation and conservation banks in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and California.
According to a copy of the burn prescription, which Munroe filled out and sent to the FFS for final approval, winds the day of the prescribed burn, May 4, were light and variable, at 6 to 10 miles per hour.
The burn prescription also noted it had been five days since the last rainfall. The National Weather Service archives noted it rained less than a half inch in the Pensacola area on April 29, although the area as a whole was experiencing "abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions" due to low rainfall totals.
Still, the forest service approved the burn and issued it an authorization number because it met all the requirements.
District 2 Santa Rosa County Commissioner Bob Cole, who represents the area where the fire caused the most destruction, said there's one more requirement he’d like to see the FFS implement in the wake of the Five Mile Swamp Fire: bond issuance, to offer financial protection to potential victims in case a fire gets out of control.
“I would like to see them require some sort of bond as a requirement to burn,” Cole said. “I asked the Florida Forest Service that specific question and they indicated there was no requirement for a bond, and to me, that’s not right. If you’re doing something, regardless if you put all the proper measures in place, even if you’re not negligent and follow all the rules, we’ve seen what can still happen.”
Cole said he’d also like to see more “mechanical harvesting of understory” — which, in essence, means using machines to clear up all the brush instead of burning it. It’s a more expensive and time-consuming method of environmental control, but Cole said he thinks it’s worth at least exploring.
“In addition to incidences like these where it gets away, there are also times when it just turns a truly beautiful weekend bad by smoke from fires from these controlled burns,” he said. “You have a beautiful clear day and then they burn and the wind shifts and now you’ve got a large area of our community filled with smoke for several hours.”
State Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, said the fire "really hit home with me because it impacted so many of my constituents in different ways." He said he would work with Cole to determine whether or not there was a way to create regulations at the state level that would ensure prescribed burns were safer.
"Obviously I don't want to add erroneous regulations that deter control burns because they are vital to maintaining healthy forests, and they prevent massive wildfires in the long run," Williamson told the News Journal on Friday. "With that said, we also need to make sure the people who provide these services know what they are doing and are adequately covered."
Joe Zwierzchowski, a spokesman for the FFS who lives in Gulf Breeze, said the fire was one of the most emotionally difficult fires he's dealt with in his career, particularly because of its location.
“It’s always a difficult thing to swallow when any fire damages homes or structures, and to have it happen in the community that I live and work in just really makes it that much more of an impact,” he said. “It’s one thing to go to a different part of the state that you’re not emotionally attached to, it’s different to go to California and deal with the aftermath of these destructive fires. But when it happens in your county, in your home district, your home unit, yeah, I mean it changes things.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.