Wildfire Threatens To Cross Highway, Prompts 100 Evacuations In Southeast Georgia

Thursday, April 26th 2007, 6:29 pm

By: News On 6

WAYCROSS, Ga. (AP) _ Authorities told residents Thursday to flee about 100 homes near a wildfire in the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia, as gusty winds threatened to spread the blaze across a four-lane highway.

Ware County sheriff's deputies went door-to-door in Astoria, a tiny community three miles southeast of Waycross, asking people to leave. Most had just returned home after evacuating for several hours Wednesday.

``My nerves just can't take it anymore,'' said Mary Howell, 51, as she packed stacks of framed family photos in the trunk of her Lincoln Towncar for the second time in two days. ``I haven't slept in a week since this stuff started.''

In the past 11 days, wildfires have blackened 95 square miles _ or about 61,100 acres _ of forest and swamp parched by drought. Officials say 18 homes have been destroyed.

Emergency officials closed 16 miles of U.S. Highway 1 and railroad tracks running alongside near the Okefenokee Swamp.

The wind blew hot embers from the swamp across the highway, igniting small spot fires near the Georgia Forestry Commission district office that fire officials had been using as a command center.

Firefighters contained the small fires quickly, but the command center had to be evacuated, said Eric Mosley, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Meanwhile, firefighters used bulldozers to widen fire breaks plowed along both sides of U.S. 1, while airplanes sprayed fire-retardant foam to try to stop the blaze from advancing.

Sustained winds of up to 20 mph from the southwest were forecast Thursday, increasing chances the fire would spread across the four-lane, divided highway that connects Waycross with Jacksonville, Fla.

If the blaze crosses the highway, firefighters said it could threaten two towns. ``All there is between U.S. 1 and Nahunta and Hoboken is just timber, tons and tons of timber with unlimited fuel,'' Mosley said.

About 1,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes near Waycross last week, and most have not been allowed to return. An additional 5,000 people had been urged to voluntarily evacuate because of health risks posed by heavy smoke.

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