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Arson experts to investigate smaller Ga. wildfires

    WAYCROSS, Ga. — Firefighters on Monday asked for arson experts to investigate whether someone may have set several small fires that have broken out near a huge 80,000-acre wildfire in southeast Georgia.
    The Georgia Forestry Commission decided at least three of the smaller spot fires burning in Ware and Charlton counties were suspicious enough to warrant further investigation, said Eric Mosley, a forestry spokesman.
    ‘‘We’ve had a couple of fires in the past few days that have seemed somewhat suspicious,’’ Mosley said. ‘‘We felt like we needed to bring in some people who work specifically on arson investigations.’’
    Officials are certain arson did not cause the main fire that has burned 125 square miles of forest and swampland over the past two weeks, Mosley said. That fire started when a tree fell across live power lines April 16. Officials say it has destroyed 22 homes.
    Mosley said the Forestry Commission suspects at least three fires may have been set by arsonists. One of them ignited last week behind the firefighters’ command post on U.S. 1 near the Okefenokee Swamp Park.
    Mosley said it could take several days for arson investigators to arrive. Because the Georgia Forestry Commission’s own investigators are busy helping fight the fires, the state is seeking help from forest services in neighboring states and from federal agencies, he said.
    Gov. Sonny Perdue plans to take an aerial tour of the fire-stricken area Tuesday afternoon, his office announced.
    For several days, gusty winds capable of carrying burning embers a half-mile or more have posed a threat of starting smaller spot fires. But Mosley said firefighters don’t think that caused the fire that ignited near their command post Saturday.
    ‘‘We felt it was a suspicious fire because the ember would’ve had to blow about five miles in the opposite direction of where the wind was blowing,’’ he said.
    More than 830 firefighters from throughout Georgia and neighboring states had the fire 64 percent contained Monday morning, said Susan Reisch, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Forestry Commission.
    ‘‘We expect the fire will continue to burn intensely this week,’’ Reisch said. ‘‘Crews will be working on extinguishing hot spots through the month, or until the next heavy rain at the earliest.’’
    No rain was forecast for next several days in Ware County, while low humidity and sustained winds of 10 mph threatened to help spread the fire Monday.
    The Forestry Commission had reduced the total acreage burned by about 2,000 acres Monday after new aerial maps gave officials a more accurate assessment of the fire, Reisch said.
    A 16-mile section of U.S. 1, which connects Waycross with Jacksonville, Fla., remained closed Monday as firefighters widened fire breaks to keep the fire from crossing the highway into miles on tinder-dry forest to the north.
    A few families remained evacuated Monday from their homes a short distance from U.S. 1 near the northern edge of the swamp, where the fire has been most active for the past week.
    Schools in Ware County, which were closed most of last week, opened an hour later than usual Monday, while schools in neighboring Charlton County were closed, said Buzz Weiss, a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
    Firefighters also worked to contain two smaller wildfires that broke out Sunday in neighboring Charlton and Brantley counties. Weiss said at least nine families were evacuated from Charlton County.
    About 1,300 acres had burned in Brantley County just east of Ware County, and the fire there was about 50 percent contained, Reisch said. She did not know the acreage of the fire in Charlton County.
    Meanwhile, a fire that broke out Saturday in an Atkinson County peat bog about 30 miles west of Waycross had burned about 3,500 acres, Reisch said.
    ———
    On the Net:
    Georgia Office of Homeland Security: http://www.gema.state.ga.us/
    Incident Information System: http://www.inciweb.org

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