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Evacuees still unable to return as wildfire threatens to spread

    WAYCROSS - Hundreds of southeast Georgia residents were unable to return to their homes Friday morning as wildfires that have already blackened more than 95 square miles threatened to spread in the area and jump a major highway.

Miles of drought-stricken forest lie beyond the 16 miles of U.S. Highway 1 that remain closed near the Okefenokee Swamp, so firefighters were making it a priority to prevent the fire from spreading there, said Byron Haire of the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Nearly 700 firefighters continued to battle the fires _ only 50 percent contained _ that have charred 61,250 acres of forest and swamp near Waycross in 11 days.

Hundreds of residents were told to leave their homes Thursday as one wildfire restarted and destroyed at least three unoccupied buildings.

A fire near Nahunta, east of Waycross, was contained last week but began raging again Thursday afternoon with an increase in wind, 911 dispatcher Elaine Wilson said.

She did not know exactly how many people had to leave their homes, but Jerry Rohnert of the Bureau of Land Management said 25 to 30 homes were vacated. Rohnert was unsure how extensive the fire was, but Wilson said it spread about four miles along U.S. Highway 301.

Ware County sheriff's deputies visited about 100 homes in and near Astoria, a tiny community three miles southeast of Waycross, asking people to leave as a fire in the Okefenokee Swamp approached. 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."

Officials say 22 homes have been destroyed.

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.

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," said Eric Mosley, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission.

The weather report indicated increased winds, after steady breezes of up to 20 mph from the southwest on Thursday. That heightened chances the fire would spread across the four-lane, divided highway that connects Waycross with Jacksonville, Fla.

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.

Schools in Brantley County were closed on Friday, along with those in Ware County, where they had reopened for two days following six days of closure because of the smoke. Officials said at least 15 roads were closed due to poor visibility.

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