Ware County, Ga., USA — Tommy Barnar was given five minutes to evacuate his home in Ware County, Ga., ahead of threatening wildfire after his slumber was interrupted by a deputy pounding on his door early Tuesday.
Barmar was among 100 who were evacuated Monday night and Tuesday morning, but 1,000 others left their homes Tuesday afternoon as the fire doubled its size to 20,000 acres by 4:30 p.m., said Eric Mosley, spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. The blaze grew 100 percent over a two-hour period, he said.
The fire had destroyed 10 structures but no fatalities had been reported, Mosley said
Aerial mapping showed a fire front 11 to 15 miles wide advancing at a mile each hour, he said. “It’s eating up a lot of fuel pretty quickly.”
Just before nightfall Tuesday, the fire had jumped Georgia 177 and was moving toward U.S. 1 south of Waycross, he said.
U.S. 84 had been closed since shortly after the fire started Monday and by 6 p.m. Tuesday the fire had caused the closure of Georgia 122, the other route between Waycross and Valdosta, Homerville and other communities to the west, said James Ginn, spokesman for the Ware County Commission.
Many of the evacuations were from homes along and between the two highways.
It’s unclear when any of the evacuees will get to go home or learn the fate of their dwellings and belongings.
About 200 firefighters from 20 departments around Georgia were so busy battling the fire they had little time to determine how much property has been damaged.
“It’s wild,” said Diane Hopkins, a Waycross city commissioner.
A number of people had lost their homes, but it was impossible to say how many, she said.
Ginn said he flew over the fire in an airplane and the plume of smoke was 10 miles wide and at least 23 miles long. That was before the fire took a run in the afternoon.
“There was no end in sight,” he said of the smoke, which clung to the ground like fog as far away as Kingsland.
The smoke notwithstanding, at 20,000 acres the fire was five times the size of Orange Park and about the same size as Daytona Beach.
“It’s still a large fire, very dangerous, volatile,” Ginn said. “Our resources are stretched. It’s turning out to be a very difficult task.”
A Waycross firefighter suffered head injuries and a broken leg about 4 p.m. while battling the blaze near U.S. 84. He was in stable condition Tuesday night at Satilla Regional Medical Center, Waycross City Manager Pete Pyrzenski said.
Details weren’t immediately available from authorities about how the firefighter was injured. Another firefighter was also injured when he broke his hand, Red Cross officials said.
Mosley said the wildfire was extremely difficult to contain.
“Because of its sheer size and the almost unlimited amount of fuel — the timberlands — between it and Florida, it’s going to be hard to stop,” Mosley said.
The Forestry Commission was doing its best, however, with tractor crews plowing breaks in the fire’s path and tanker planes making aerial drops on the fire all day, he said.
As those crews fought in the forests, city and county firefighters were just outside Waycross trying to stop the fire from jumping roads, such as Smith Road just west of Waycross College and Ware County High School.
Containing the fire is so difficult, emergency officials relocated a Red Cross shelter from the high school to Waycross Middle School for safety concerns.
Okefenokee Swamp Park was also closed to visitors and the staff was ordered to evacuate midafternoon. A decision to re-open the facility will be determined on a day-to-day basis.
Waycross College canceled its Tuesday night classes but officials said they would probably hold classes today because the fire had been stopped west of Smith Road.
Barnar and other evacuees slept on cots in the Waycross Middle School gym after they were processed into the shelter. Barnar, who had barely enough time to dress, said he forgot to bring his insulin and other medications in his haste to leave.
“I rushed out and didn’t bring nothing,” he said. “I’ve lived in Waycross 72 years and I’ve never seen nothing like this.”
Luckily, Red Cross officials had a nurse at the shelter, which opened at 6:30 p.m. Monday, to help evacuees with medical needs, many of whom left their medications behind when they hastily evacuated.
Worries about homes
Rita Brookshire, a Red Cross official at the shelter, said evacuees are worried about their homes and want to know any details about the fire. Like everyone else, Brookshire could only get sketchy information about the fire, but she promised Red Cross officials are prepared to help anyone whose home has been damaged or destroyed.
“We’re ready to help the families,” she said.
Churches and businesses have been quick to offer help, including hot meals, water and other necessities, Brookshire said.
“This community has been absolutely wonderful,” she said.
The big need, she said, will be cash donations to help those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed.
“We want to be ready to deal with their needs,” she said. “We’re going to be here until the end.”
The community was also generous to the out-of-town firefighters, providing food, sports drinks and other needs at Ware County High School, which served as a rest area for them. Simmons Co. brought 100 mattress pillow tops from its factory in Waycross and was providing food for lunch today, said Donna Cason, a worker in the company’s human resources department.
All Ware County public schools will remain closed today.
School smoke damage
No schools have been damaged by fire. However, Ruskin Elementary School has been inundated with smoke. The wildfire also has affected 13 school bus routes used to transport about 500 students, said Theresa Bryant Martin, spokeswoman for the Ware County School System.
In addition, Waycross Middle School is being used as an emergency shelter for people evacuated ahead of the wildfire.
“We will be assessing the situation on a day-by-day basis as to when the schools will reopen for classes,” Martin said.
Ruskin, which has about 500 students plus about 50 teachers and paraprofessionals, was near the worst of the wildfire in western Ware County.
“Smoke enveloped the school. They are working to assess the extent of the smoke damage, but probably we’ll have to get professionals to come in to clean it,” Martin said.
Gov. Sonny Perdue instructed the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to take the first step in seeking federal assistance for fires in Southeast Georgia.
“The fires in Southeast Georgia have the potential to be a major disaster. One fire is threatening the city of Waycross and another has already crossed into the city limits of Nahunta,” Perdue said in a prepared release.
“As a result I instructed GEMA Director Charley English to begin the process of securing fire management assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” he said.
Once the request is relayed to Washington, FEMA will determine whether to provide federal assistance.
The fire danger remains high in South Georgia today.
Very dry conditions coupled with low humidity will continue through the weekend, National Weather Service officials said.