Jacksonville, FL, USA — Residents complain of sleeplessnights and throats sore from breathing the smoke of pines burned to charcoal,while firefighters battle frustration from 16-hour days trying to tame a firetoo vast for them to extinguish.
Wildfires that have scorched 95 square miles of drought-stricken forest and swampland in southeast Georgia are fraying the nerves of homeowners near its path and testing the mettle of nearly 700 firefighters who have protected them since the blaze was ignited by a falling powerline on April 16.
“Everyone wants to play offense and put the fire out,” firefighter Jerome Harvey said. “But this is a very dynamic incident and you got to be able to just keep up with it and slug it out with it.”
More than 100 homes near the swamp were under evacuation orders early Friday, but most of the orders were lifted later in the day, according to Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Tracy J. Smith.
“The fire continues and that area is still being monitored closely,” Smith said. “We don’t want people to get comfortable in that area. The winds have been extremely active.”
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. (FIRESTORM2007)
Smith said fires have covered about 61,250 acres and were about 50 percentcontained as of Friday afternoon.
“I’m ready for it to be over,” Jamey Cribbs, 21, said Friday afterstaying up all night with his father to make sure no burning ash from the firefell on their home at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. “It’s only been twoweeks, but that seems like a lifetime.”
Cribbs’ family was ordered twice this week to flee their home in tinyBraganza community three miles southeast of Waycross. Cribbs said he and hisfather sneaked in along back roads overnight.
Miles of drought-stricken forest lie beyond the 30 miles of U.S. 1 thatremain closed between Folkston and the Waycross city limits. Firefighters workedto prevent the fire from crossing the highway into miles of tinder-dry forestbeyond.
Even the office of the Georgia Forestry Commission along U.S. 1 was evacuatedof all but essesntial personnel at 2 p.m. Friday when the fire spotted thehighway. Everyone was allowed to return about two hours later.
A second, 2,300-acre raged near Nahunta, east of Waycross, where officialssaid about 30 homes had to be evacuated. Firefighters contained the blaze lastweek, but gusty winds caused it to flare back to life Thursday afternoon,destroying three unoccupied homes.
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 to keep thefire at bay in the swamp.
“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.”
Jason Thornton was losing hope anybody could protect his rural Ware Countyhome near an old goat farm in the swamp fire’s path. A sheriff’s deputy arrivedat his door Thursday afternoon ordering his wife, Misty, to leave immediatelywhile the 32-year-old truck driver was at work.
She wasn’t even allowed to collect the suitcases and duffel bags they hadalready packed with spare clothes, a few valuables and insurance and taxdocuments. Misty Thornton, 28, said she hadn’t slept in two days.
“We’re basically losing everything we have,” Jason Thornton saidThursday night outside a middle-school auditorium where officials gave residentsupdates on the fire — but little hope for the Thorntons. “Things we havebuilt over 11 years, now it could all be gone in seconds.”
Mary Howell had just unpacked the framed family photos from her LincolnTowncar on Thursday morning after officials allowed residents of the tinyAstoria community to return from an evacuation Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon,a new mandatory evacuation was issued and she had to leave again. She packed hertrunk a second time, feeling sick with a sore throat from heavy smoke along theground.
“When you leave, you don’t know if when you come back you’re going tohave a house or not,” said Howell, 51. “But I really wish they hadn’ttold us to come back.”
Waycross residents who haven’t had to worry about their homes have insteadbeen caring for the hundreds of firefighters who have poured in battle the blaze.
When Teresa Griffis heard the city’s National Guard Armory needed pillows forfirefighters bunking there, she rushed to the Dollar General store and filled ashopping cart with them.
“I’m in the checkout line and this lady came up, and she had pillows inher buggy, too,” said Griffis, a 55-year-old homemaker.
At the National Guard Armory, pallets of bottled water and Gatorade emptyquickly as firefighters carry entire cases with them for the next shift. MartyVia, a minister from Blackshear, has spent the past two weeks overseeingdonations to the firefighters of everything from sunflower seeds to razors toclean T-shirts and underwear.
Via has also appointed himself guardian of the darkened doorway leading tothe 140 bunks and mattresses where firefighters sleep in shifts.
“You want to get thrown off the volunteer shift? Wake up a fireman,”Via said. “A lot of them never even sleep in here. They come in, getblankets and pillows from us and go sleep in their trucks so they’ll be ready togo.”
Bill Miller, a retired firefighter from the North Carolina Forest Service,finished a 16-hour shift Thursday by the time he and his crew sat down fordinner at almost 10 p.m. He said it was the earliest they had eaten all week.
The Shoney’s restaurant in Waycross has stayed open until midnight, two hourspast closing time, to accommodate the out-of-town firefighters. Since the pastweek, Miller and his crew of contract firefighters from Asheville, N.C., havebecome like regulars.
A waitress stops at their table to chat and offer welcome shoulder rubs tothe men who spend their days straddling bulldozers to plow fire breaks. Thoughfirefighters are required to take an hour off for every two hours they work, a16-hour day doesn’t leave much time for sleep.
“You’re eating supper, you’re working on equipment, organizingeverything — and you try to get five or six hours of sleep out of that,”said Miller, 54. “You know how to pace yourself. But you can see peoplestaring to slow down a little. The adrenaline’s starting to wear off.”