Jacksonville, FL, USA– After two weeks of fighting fires, it seemed everyonein Ware County is tired and ready to see one thing — rain.
“We’re going to have some problems for a while until we can get some rain,”said Byron Haire of the Division of Forestry.Firefighters have managed to contain about 70 percent of the largest wildfire in Georgia history, which had charred 100 square miles of forest and swampland, officials said Sunday.
Shifting winds and drought-parched forest and swampland have continued to fuel the growth of the vast fire.
Haire said more than 20 fires were burning in southeast Georgia on Sunday.
“We are encouraging our citizens to be very conscious of their outdoor activities,” said Haire.
Firefighters say the current focus of their efforts is to keep the massive blaze from jumping U.S. 1 and coming closer to populated areas A few families remained evacuated from their homes on the opposite side of U.S.Highway 1 from the main blaze, in an area where smaller spot fires startedduring the weekend, said Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Susan Reisch.
Firefighters patrolled a 16-mile stretch of the highway, which remainedclosed between Folkston and Waycross, and the main body of the wildfire had notspread east across the highway into miles of tinder-dry forest.
Wind gusting to 15 mph and extreme drought conditions with no rain in theforecast mean the fire will continue to rage for at least another week, Reischsaid.
“We are still in the throes of a very, very difficult effort and weanticipate this fire burning intensely for at least another week — and maybeanother month,” Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesman Buzz Weissagreed.
The blaze started April 16 near the Okefenokee Swamp, west of U.S. 1, whichconnects Waycross to Jacksonville, Fla.
Although the wildfire is 70 percent contained, officials estimated the dateof control is June 1 with “success depending largely on holding the burnoutand completion of control lines in the southeast section,” according to theWildlandFire and Incident Information System .
Two other wildfires that broke out early Sunday in counties near the mainfire — one in Charlton County and one on the line of Brantley and Glynncounties — were not connected with the wildfire near Waycross, Reisch said.
Firefighters were working to contain them as well and at least nine familieswere evacuated from Charlton County, said Georgia Emergency Management Agencyspokesman Buzz Weiss.
Elsewhere, a fire that broke out late Saturday in an Atkinson County peat bogabout 30 miles west of Waycross had grown to 3,000 acres, Weiss said.
The nearly 700 firefighters in the area are also battling frustration from16-hour days trying to tame a fire too vast for them to extinguish.
Valdosta firefighter Jeff Thibodeau, who joined the army of firefighters fromacross Georgia and neighboring states helping fight the blaze near Waycross,spent the night shift Thursday replenishing fire trucks with water.
“It’s aggravating, because you just want to grab it by the throat andput it out,” Thibodeau said after coming off his shift Friday morning.”This fire is so big, there’s not enough water in the state of Georgia toput it out. All you can do is let it run its course in the woods and protect thestructures.”
All road closures have been lifted except US Highway 1 between mile marker 1and 16 (Hatcher Point Road to Race Pond Road) and State Route 177 due to heavysmoke in the area and fire activity, according to the Georgia ForestryCommission.
Channel 4’s Emily Pantelides reported at 6 p.m. Sunday there were nomandatory evacuations, but Red Cross has opened a shelter at Folkston ElementarySchool.
Charlton County schools will not have classes on Monday. Ware and Brantleycounty schools were expected to be in session on Monday.
Smoky Haze Returns To Jacksonville
As Georgia residents keep an eye on the massive brush fire, an ominous cloud ofsmoke made the weekend a smoky one in Jacksonville.The thick smoke that hovered over Jacksonville and surrounding areas on Saturdayand Sunday was the result of the fires burning to the north, along with thedirection of the wind.
Duval County Health Department did not issue a health advisory on Sundayafternoon, but the smoky condition was expected to get worse by Monday morning.
“The reason we are looking for even smokier conditions tomorrow morning isthat overnight not only is that air going to cool and settle down, but also thesea breeze is going to stop, which is going to allow all of that dense, thick,acrid smoke to settle down over areas in Nassau County, Duval County,northeastern Baker County and Camden County — any areas seeing smoke overheadright now, can expect even more dense smoke early tomorrow morning,” saidthe Weather Authority’s Rebecca Barry.
The smoky haze that Jacksonville saw on Sunday is expected to linger through early Monday morning.
Experts suggest on smoky days, it’s best to stay inside and keep the aircondition running.