Georgia, USA — Alan and Laura Davis finally took down the sprinkler that sprayed water across their roof for days while a wildfire raged through pine forest less than a mile from their home.
But they kept the bedsheet, anchored at the corners by flower pots, atop their house with its spray-painted sign: a big red bullseye and the words “Water Here!!!”
The thick, blinding smoke had mostly cleared Tuesday after days of choking this tiny southeast Georgia town. Firefighters said the fire had largely been contained behind fire breaks plowed by bulldozers a few miles to the south and east.
Still, the Davises kept their china packed in a plastic container on the porch and their framed wedding and graduation photos in boxes. The fire that has burned 53,000 acres, or about 67 square miles, over the past eight days was still going _ making it too early to feel safe.
“Today’s been our calmest day,” said Alan Davis, a 57-year-old sound technician. “But a fire this size, a hot spot could flare up at any time. It’s going to take a lot of rain to get it down.”
The 500 residents of tiny Manor, an unincorporated community 15 miles southwest of Waycross, are still keeping a nervous eye on the wildfire after firefighters kept it from igniting homes here over the weekend.
About 50 evacuated residents were still unable to return Tuesday to their homes down Suwannee Church Road, where firefighters battled brush fires popping up ahead of the blaze.
Ware County sheriff’s deputy Dearin Drury sat in his patrol car next to orange barrels blocking the road, politely turning residents away.
“Every 45 minutes or so I get one coming up,” Drury said. “You can understand that. They’re eager to get back to their homes.”
Officials said they’re making progress keeping the fire south of Manor and Waycross, a city of 15,300 just northeast of the Okefenokee Swamp. As of Tuesday afternoon, the blaze was about 50 percent contained by fire breaks plowed along the wildfire’s northern edge.
But winds have kept shifting direction over the past week since the fire started April 16 when a downed power line ignited tinder-dry trees in Ware County, part of a large area of southeast Georgia parched by severe drought.
“Until we get rain and as long as the wind is kicking up like this, we’re going to have to stay vigilant,” said Joe Cornelius III, a Ware County commissioner, volunteer fireman and blueberry farmer who lives in Manor.
Jerry Rohnert, a spokesman for the Georgia forestry commission, said the fire had been 50 percent contained by Tuesday evening. Firefighters had spent part of the day trying to extinguish hot spots where the flames died down but left smoldering embers that can flare back up with the wind.
The fire has destroyed 18 homes in Ware County, and about 1,000 people were forced to evacuate week. Many have yet to be allowed to return home. Another 5,000 people in the Waycross area were urged to leave voluntarily because of health risks associated with heavy smoke.
Ware County schools were closed for a sixth day Tuesday because of the danger of smoke obscuring roads along bus routes.