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Wildfires continue to threaten Ga.'s Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge

    WAYCROSS, Ga. - Firefighters were making slow progress Thursday against two wildfires that have forced more than 1,000 people from their homes and destroyed 14 houses as they spread over more than 45 square miles of tinder-dry forest in southeast Georgia.

The fires threatened the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation's best-preserved wetland areas, with one reaching the outer edges of the refuge, said Eric Mosley, spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission.

That fire _ the larger of the two _ burned into a wet prairie area and slowed, officials said.

The smaller fire, a little over 3 square miles, had burned to within five miles of the refuge by Thursday morning but was mostly contained, said Shawn Gillette, a spokesman for the refuge.

Firefighters, helped by higher humidity, also made gains in containing the much larger fire, which was 30 percent contained Thursday morning. It began Monday near Waycross when a tree fell on a power line, then raced through the forest.

Fourteen homes were destroyed, Mosley said. No deaths were reported, but several firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation or minor injuries, including a firefighter who suffered a broken leg and cuts to his hand.

The cause of the smaller fire was still unknown.

Southeast Georgia is extremely dry, with rainfall deficits of 6 to 8 inches for the year, officials said.

"The weather today is probably going to be a little bit better than it has been. The winds seem to have died down, the smoke has lifted some," said Jim Burkhart, a ranger at the Okefenokee refuge. But officials worried about stronger wind over the weekend spreading any flames.

Mosley recommended that people stay away from areas affected by the fires and stay inside to avoid smoke, which "can be somewhat abrasive to the lungs."

Four counties in the Jacksonville, Fla. area _ Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns _ issued health advisories Tuesday and Wednesday because of the smoke generated by the Georgia fires.

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On the Net:

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/okefenokee/

Georgia Forestry Commission: http://www.gfc.state.ga.us/

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