2 Ga. Wildfires Force 1,000 From Homes, Threaten Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge

Wednesday, April 18th 2007, 4:00 pm
By: News On 6

WAYCROSS, Ga. (AP) _ Two wildfires forced more than 1,000 people from their homes in southeastern Georgia and threatened the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation's best-preserved wetland areas, officials said Wednesday.

Residents had been evacuated from homes in the Waycross area since Monday and were still out Wednesday afternoon, said Eric Mosley, spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. Many went to a shelter or moved in with relatives, officials said.

Classes at Waycross schools were canceled after buses were unable to run on some routes because of smoky conditions, and the private Okefenokee Swamp Park was evacuated and its animals moved to safety.

The larger blaze, which had burned about 40 square miles, or 25,000 acres, ignited Monday near Waycross when a tree fell on a power line, then raced through tinder-dry forest to the refuge, officials said.

Another fire broke out about 40 miles south of there, near Fargo, and had spread to 2,200 acres, or 3.4 square miles, by Wednesday afternoon, officials said. The cause of that fire was unknown.

``Because they are around the Okefenokee, it's really hampered our ability to fight the fires,'' Mosley said. ``There aren't many roads or trails into the Okefenokee and it's hard to get equipment in.''

Jim Burkhart, a refuge ranger, said the larger fire had entered the refuge by Wednesday afternoon, but not the smaller one. The 403,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for animals including alligators and wading birds.

A drought has left the forests vulnerable to wildfires, and the swampy land can be too boggy to support firefighting equipment, such as bulldozers to create firebreaks, said Alan Dozier, the forestry commission's chief firefighter.

High winds also have made it difficult to control the fires, officials said.

A third fire broke out Tuesday evening and damaged a few hundred acres in Berrien County, about 50 miles from the Waycross blaze. Firefighters also battled a 4-square-mile fire near Nahunta.