JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Wind blew flames from a controlled burn out of the Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park and onto neighboring land Tuesday afternoon, coming within 50 feet of one home before dozens of firefighters and forestry personnel began to contain it.
Jacksonville Fire-Rescue and the Florida Forest Service responded with 75 firefighters, 15 tractors and a helicopter as the wildfire rapidly burned south and jumped Cedar Point Road due the wind and a heavy fuel load. JFRD reported that ash and embers fell outside the containment area. The plume of smoke from the fire was seen for miles.
Just after 5 p.m., Florida Forest Service personnel estimated the fire had grown to 400 acres and was 25 percent contained.
"We're making some progress. They're getting good lines around the fire in most places," Fire Chief Marty Senterfitt said.
Black Hammock Island remained closed to traffic and all roads west of Black Hammock were closed: Boney, Cedar Point and Nungezer. By late afternoon authorities began escorting residents on and off the island.
Jeffrey Turner said he rushed to get home, but the closure at Cedar Point Road slowed him down.
"It's pretty aggravating," said Turner. "I was pretty scared."
"I want to get back there to my family," said Jason Wheeler. "My grandparents live back there, trying to get back there and get them out as soon as possible."
Because school buses could not get into affected neighborhoods, students from the area were held at First Coast High School, Oceanway Middle School and New Berlin Elementary until their parents could pick them up. Duval County Public Schools later provided transportation for about 35 affected students to their homes.
JFRD spokesman Tom Francis said there were no evacuations and everyone was safe to stay in their homes, but people were asked to stay inside. Those driving on the morning commute Wednesday were asked to take precaution because of the smoky and possibly foggy conditions.
No injuries were reported and only two homes were threatened Tuesday, which firefighters were actively protecting.
"The primary difficulty we're having ... is accessibility. It is deep-seated back in the woods," Francis said. "We're slowly but surely getting a handle on the situation."
"The challenge is the fire keeps changing directions," Senterfitt said late Tuesday afternoon. "As the humidity goes up, the fire will start laying down and make it easier for us."
Forestry spokeswoman Annaleasa Winter said a helicopter and other resources were headed to help battle the fire, but "at this point, it has calmed down significantly."
She said that the park service was operating within its guidelines for a prescribed burn, which is "the best defense against wildfires," when the fire jumped containment lines.
Another wildfire was burning Tuesday afternoon in the Riverton Park area of northwest St. Johns County. St. Johns County Fire-Rescue spokesman Jeremy Robshaw said county and state resources were battling the fire, but no structures were in immediate danger. He said it was too early to estimate the number of acres burning.
"We're still six weeks to two months away from wildfire season and this is already happening to us," Senterfitt said.
Crews were able to open Cedar point road shortly after 7 p.m. on Tuesday, but their efforts to keep the fire under control won't stop. Crews will be on scene monitoring the fire in Pumpkin Hill Creek State Park throughout Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.
As the brush fire continues to burn, those fighting it are doing that with reduced man power and equipment. According to the President of Jacksonville Association of Firefighters, Randy Wyse, Tuesday's Pumpkin Hill fire had a slow response because of those cuts.
"The men and women did heroic things today, stopping them from getting to houses, they do it everyday," said Wyse. "But it's frustrating for them not to have this equipment at a moments notice."
Wyse said the city's September budget cuts to Fire and Rescue caused only two stations in the city have firefighters staffed to handle brush trucks when needed. Wyse said the brush truck at Oceanway Fire Station near the fire was not staffed Tuesday.
"Luckily, the engine was in the fire house. They were able to grab the brush truck," said Wyse. "But if they wouldn't have been there, their would be no one to bring it here, delayed response."
Senterfitt disagreed with Wyse's comments Tuesday night, saying that budget cuts did not impact Tuesday's brush fire response.
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