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70 more homes evacuated as S. Georgia wildfires spread
Georgia Wildfires wedWEB
A claims adjustor for State Farm Insurance (no name given) takes pictures of a burned-out mobile home that was destroyed last week in the 53,000-acre wildfire still burning around Waycross on Wednesday. - photo by Associated Press

    WAYCROSS — Dozens of residents were forced to evacuate for a few hours and authorities closed a highway early Wednesday after a wildfire that  has spread rapidly through the Okefenokee Swamp crossed a highway and began moving toward a community south of Waycross.

     The residents were allowed to return to their homes by sunrise.

     Also, more than 30 miles of U.S. 1 between Waycross and Folkston were closed to traffic for a few hours. The highway was later reopened.

     About 70 homes had been evacuated as a precaution in the early morning hours after the fire crossed Ga. 177, a short road that ends in the swamp, and threatened the small communities of Astoria and Braganza about three miles south of Waycross, said Tracy Smith, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

     Waycross, a city of 15,300 people, was not in immediate danger, Smith said, though heavy smoke covered the city. Wildfires have burned 53,000 acres, or about 67 square miles, of forest parched by drought in southeast Georgia in the past nine days.

     Darryl Cribbs, 44, and his family had to evacuate after sheriff’s deputies came to their door around 1 a.m. Wednesday. They piled spare clothes, a few valuables and their six dogs into three cars while the fire burned less than a mile from their home in Braganza.

     ‘‘It looked like it was snowing with all the ash falling. You could feel the heat,’’ said Cribbs, a plumber, who took his family to stay with his parents in Waycross. ‘‘They said as soon as we left they were going to bring in tanker trucks and try to save the house.’’

     The wildfire spread rapidly Tuesday night and early Wednesday near the private, nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park, fueled by dense and dry trees and brush, as firefighters tried to protect nearby homes after their occupants had fled.

     ‘‘I got my laptop computer and some important pictures,’’ said Mary Chauncey, 58, who went to a Red Cross shelter in Waycross after deputies came to her home near Astoria at about midnight Tuesday. ‘‘When they tell you to get out, you don’t have time to get a whole lot of stuff.’’

     Her brother-in-law, Curtis Cowart, said at the shelter his family had been warned twice last week that they might have to evacuate, but never did. They had already unpacked valuables they planned to take with them by the time they were told to flee Wednesday.

     ‘‘I wasn’t going to leave, but I looked and saw the flames and the smoke and it looked like it was getting closer’’ said Cowart, 61, whose property near Astoria backs onto the swamp. ‘‘If it comes through those woods, I don’t know if they can stop it.’’

     The swamp fire, less than 10 miles southeast of Waycross, sent up a towering cloud of smoke near the entrance to the park.

     Firefighters tried to slow the blaze by setting fire to underbrush ahead of the blaze, hoping the fires would merge and burn each other out competing for fuel. They also hoped the four-lane highway of U.S. 1 at the park entrance would keep fire from spreading to nearby homes.

     About a dozen residents who live within a mile of the park gathered Tuesday across the highway from the entrance on U.S. 1 and nervously watched the orange glow from the fire behind the trees.

     ‘‘I wasn’t scared last week, but this is scary,’’ said Kelli Lee, 33, who said she has kept valuables packed up for the past week in case she has to evacuate. ‘‘I know I won’t sleep tonight, that’s for sure.’’

     The fire started April 16 when a downed power line ignited tinder-dry trees in Ware County, part of a large area of southeast Georgia parched by severe drought. Officials said Tuesday the blaze was 50 percent contained by fire breaks plowed along its perimeter.

     But winds have kept shifting direction over the past week, threatening to cause pockets of smoldering embers to flare back to life.

     More than 1,000 Ware County residents have been forced to evacuate their homes since the fire began, and 5,000 others have been urged to evacuate voluntarily because of health risks posed by smoke from the fire.

     Officials say the fire has destroyed 18 homes in the area.

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