Georgia, USA — Dozens of families forced to flee their homes in Astoria after a raging wildfire in southeast Georgia jumped a highway and spread toward their community were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday, officials announced.
In an wildfire update issued at 8:30 p.m. EDT, officials said the evacuation order had been lifted and that all but one road that had been closed were reopened.
By Wednesday night, the fire had spread another 8,000 acres, burning a total of 61,109 acres. The fire, about five miles from Waycross, was 50 percent contained. Full containment was not expected until Monday night.
“Though firefighters have made progress on fire breaks, the fire continues to pose a threat to community of Astoria, as well as the northwest portion of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge,” officials said.
An evacuation order for about 70 homes in Astoria was issued shortly after midnight when the wildfire crossed state Highway 177 and moved toward U.S. 1 and Astoria, about three miles south of Waycross. The evacuation order was in effect as late as 6 p.m. EDT, according to fire spokesman Jerry Rohnert.
Weather continued to be a major concern.
“The thing that they’re concerned with now is that the forecast for tomorrow and Friday does not look good,” Rohnert said.
Winds were expected to be 20 to 25 mph with gusts up to 25 mph Thursday afternoon and thunderstorms were in the forecast for Friday or Saturday.
“With thundershowers there’s usually lightning,” he said. “It’s one of those things. With the weather you just wait and see.”
Authorities briefly shut down U.S. 1 between Waycross and Jacksonville, Fla., due to smoke but later reopened the roadway. Highway 84 between Homerville and Waycross was also reopened.
Evacuees were advised to go to the Waycross Middle School where the American Red Cross has been operating an emergency shelter. A town meeting was scheduled at the Ware County Middle School on Thursday night.
The evacuation order came as firefighters battled the blaze for a tenth day.
Hundreds of firefighters from several states were fighting the fire, which was spreading rapidly through the Okefenokee Swamp.
Smoke from the blaze continued to fill the sky and people with respiratory ailments were advised to stay indoors.
At one point the smoke was so dense “you couldn’t see 100 feet in front of you,” said Billy L. Cox, pastor at the Church of God of Prophecy in the town of Manor.
Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief was providing all meals for the firefighters. It also brought in a special unit with portable showers.
Residents were praying for rain and posting similar messages on signs outside of businesses and churches. Special prayers were even said Sunday night at Cox’s church.
“It’s very serious down here,” Cox said of the fire conditions. “It’s just terrible.”
Forecasters predicted a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms on Friday or Saturday. Firefighters fear that lightning accompanying those storms could spark even more fires in the tinder-dry area.
Ware County public schools, which have been closed for the past week due to the fire and smoky conditions which hampered road travel, reopened Wednesday. Schools started one hour later than normal to allow for visibility on the roads used by school buses to improve.
Winds were forecast to push the smoke toward Waycross over the next few days, making driving hazardous and causing renewed health concerns. The Satilla Regional Medical Center in Waycross was restricting some entrances to its facility and shutting down some elevators, among other precautions, to limit smoke in the building.
Smoke from the fire has drifted hundreds of miles from Florida to Tennessee.
“The wind has just been changing back and to and that’s what they’re really having a lot of problems with,” Cox said.
The blaze, which began April 16 apparently when a tree fell on a power line, has destroyed 18 homes.
It has also moved to within less than half a mile of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation’s oldest and most well-preserved wetland areas. The wetlands are home to several endangered species but officials said the fire posed little threat to them.
“The fire will benefit the swamp wilderness habitat, which is a fire-dependent ecosystem, and will pose only a small threat to the wildlife species which live within it,” they said. “However, due to the extreme fire conditions we are experiencing, there may be detrimental effects on portions of the swamp.”
Okefenokee Swamp Park and Dixon Memorial State Forest, south of Waycross, remain closed.
Cox said there was no formal coordinated community or faith-based response to the fire but that community members were watching out for one another and doing what they could to help.
“This community really gets active when it comes to helping people,” he said.
No fatalities have been reported but several firefighters and one child were reported injured.