USA — Sparked and spread by dry thunderstorms that are doing more harm than good, wildfires burning in southeast Georgia had communities watching nervously as flames spread overnight to destroy mobile homes in Camden County, a house and barn in Ware County and threaten about 50 homes in neighboring Charlton County.
“It’s close enough to make everybody pretty nervous,” said John Meyer, emergency management director for Charlton County. “We’re doing a lot of praying, that’s for sure.”
Sheriff’s deputies had ordered a few dozen homes in northern Charlton County to evacuate Tuesday night as flames a rekindled 12-square-mile Racepond fire at the Okefenokee’s northeastern edge flared up and spread over an additional 2,000 acres, or 3 square miles.
“We’ve been able, so far, to keep the fire from structures, but we’ve still got it heading in the direction of the structures,” said Nickie Jordan of the Georgia Forestry Commission. “When we get it contained again, it’s going to take a good rain to put it out.”
A wind shift Wednesday is blowing the fire away from the populated area, allowing Highway 121 to reopen between U.S. 1 and Hoboken, and U.S. Highway 1 to reopen from Folkston to Highway 177.
The Red Cross opened shelter at Folkston Elementary School on Okefenokee Drive Tuesday afternoon. While no one took advantage of the shelter’s hot meal, first aid or place to spend the night, the shelter remained open for anyone in need.
“We’re definitely compassionate about what they’re going through,” said Marty Turner of the Red Cross. “I’ve seen fires, and you know, I’ve seen what happens to a house with a fire, so I definitely feel for them.”
Wednesday afternoon, a new, 300-acre fire along Highway 84 in Ware County destroyed a barn and burned about 300 acres.
Georgia Forestry Commission spokesman Eric Mosley said the fire started about 5 miles west of Waycross and prompted deputies to go door-to-door warning residents they may need to evacuate.
Meanwhile, firefighters in neighboring Camden County worked Wednesday to contain fire that ignited overnight and quickly consumed more than 1,000 acres bordered by U.S. Highway 17 on the north, George Break Road on the west and Horsestamp Church Road on the south.
U.S. 17 was closed overnight, but allowed to open at 6 a.m. Wednesday. Only one evacuation was ordered, but residents are urged to be alert in case more are needed.
The new blaze destroyed two mobile homes, said Eric Mosley, spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. He said only one of the homes had people living in it, and the occupants got out safely ahead of the fire.
Smoke from these fires and a much larger fire that has burned 200 square miles inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge over the past seven weeks is the main cause of the smoke than descended on the Jacksonville area Tuesday afternoon.
Two large fires burning inside the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge merged into one on Tuesday and spread outside the refuge boundary.
Haven Cook, a spokeswoman for the firefighting command, said the Honey Prairie Fire and the Paxton Road Fire have joined, burning more than 192,000 acres — 300 square miles — as of Tuesday night. She said firefighters worked through the night to contain the fire, which moved outside the east entrance to the refuge during the night.
The larger Honey Prairie Fire was considered 80 percent by Wednesday morning.
On Monday, the 4,000-foot boardwalk that leads to the Owls Roost observation tower in the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area south of Folkston burned Monday morning, but the tower itself was still intact.
Drought conditions have left southeast Georgia’s forests and swamps dry as tinder, making for an usually high 8,500 fires across Georgia in the past year and 3,283 fires in Florida since the first of this year.. Officials said scattered thunderstorms forecast through the week are largely to blame for sparking new fires and fanning existing ones.
Temperatures near 100 degrees are also complicating life for the firefighters, as did 13 new fires started by lightning Monday afternoon and evening in the forestry district.