Fire Forces Highway 79 to Close Overnight

BAY COUNTY Highway 79 is closed Friday, due to heavy smoke from a wildfire.

The flames jumped the roadway around 3:00 Friday afternoon, forcing police to turn away thousands of tourists trying to get to the beach for the holiday weekend.

A little after 8:00 the Bay County Sheriff's Office sent out a notice, saying the Florida Highway Patrol made the decision to shut down Highway 79 for the rest of the night.

State troopers started detouring drivers onto Highway 388 Friday afternoon, sending them all the way through Panama City to get the their hotels and condos for the holiday weekend.

Annie Nieves is visiting from Texas and exclaims, "Literally we're only 16-minutes away from where we're supposed to be! It's very frustrating."

Angry drivers packed the gas station on the corner of State Road 388 and Highway 79 Friday afternoon, after authorities closed down Highway 79.

State forestry officials say one of their prescribed burns on the west side of the highway jumped to the east side and began to spread.

Panama City Beach Fire Department Captain Joe Cocco says, "Usually most of the time, the people that do the control burn are pretty good about not having this happen but sometimes changing winds are normally the main problem."

Forestry crews cut fire lines with bulldozers, getting help from a spotter overhead.

Panama City Beach Fire Rescue, Bay County Fire Department, and Southport Fire Rescue are also providing ground support.

Thankfully, no homes or buildings were threatened, but there was no getting around the closed roadway and the long detours.

Captain Cocco explains, "It's a very big inconvenience obviously. There's a lot of tourists that are probably steaming mad right now."

Madison Criswell says, "We're from Center, Alabama, and it took us six hours?"

Her sister, Kirsten corrects,"Six and a half, seven hours to get down here and we came to the red light, and well I was driving and I saw the smoke coming up and I said, 'I think that's a fire'."

Nick Lett is visiting from Alabama and describes his experience, "As we were riding, we think we're finally here, and then I'll be darned, they got the road blocked off and everything. I've never drove down here by myself, and I dang sure never had this happen."

Those wanting to head north on 79 didn't fair any better.

Nieves says, "they gave us an alternate route but it literally would take us 2 hours back."

Criswell adds, "We're trying to figure out if we want to take the hour detour or just wait."

As you can see, traffic is still being redirected.

Officials are warning beach residents to watch out for any smoke around their homes as the wind shifts again Friday night.


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