Officials to Ask Landowners to Postpone Burns

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WEST BAY - Bay County commissioners say they don't want a repeat of the highway fiasco at the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend. Local authorities had to detour traffic after a prescribed burn got out of control and jumped across Highway 79.

Bay County Commissioner Mike Thomas issued an apology Tuesday for the county's reaction to a wildfire that shutdown Highway 79 Memorial Day weekend. Thomas said, "I'm sorry we didn't [do more], but I promise you Bay County will know exactly what's going on if it happens again."

The fire started as a prescribed burn, but quickly got out of control.

He said, "I just didn't feel like adequate steps we taken to inform the general public as they were driving along the road what was happening."

The flames and smoke forced police and state troopers to detoured thousands of tourists to the area's other major roadways. Thomas estimates 30,000 of them never made it to the beach.

For Hilary Head, who's Boon Docks Restaurant was on the wrong side of the roadblocks, the promise of big holiday business went up in smoke. Head said, "We were unable to open Friday because of the road closure, and it is not how we planned to start the holiday season."

Instead of pointing fingers, Thomas and others say they want to avoid a "next time."

"There may be something that we can do with DOT [Department of Transportation] and the traffic issue so we are investigating that fully. We were comfortable at the time with what DOT did," said Mark Bowen, Emergency Services Chief.

Bowen also plans to meet with the State Division of Forestry and the landowners that use prescribed burns, and ask them to refrain from burning in advance of holiday weekends.

He said, "We have no legal mechanisms to force them to do that, so we are just going to ask them voluntarily to do that."

Bowen will meet with the landowners, then report back to commissioners July 1st.