Charlton County schools close as wildfire spreads

Evacuation order expanded; temporary shelter relocated

ST. GEORGE, Ga. – The Charlton County School District announced Sunday that schools will be closed Monday for students and staff because of conditions caused by the West Mims wildfire.

St. George Elementary School is currently being used as a staging area for firefighters and road closures would prevent the safe operation of school buses.

As the West Mims Fire spreads east, Georgia fire officials expanded the evacuation order Sunday to the east side of Highway 121, north of Highway 94, and moved a temporary shelter that was previously at the Folkston Elementary School.

The new temporary shelter is the Camden Community Recreational Center at 1050 Wildcat Drive in Kingsland, Georgia.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for residents in St. George, Canaday Loop, and Moniac, and rural areas of Charlton County from Jim Crawford Loop Road south to St. George, on the west side of Highway 121.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Facebook page posted the following message late Sunday night:
“… 1st Responders are NOT coming door to door because they are fighting this approaching fire to try to save your homes. The fire has jumped HWY 94 and is now headed towards the communities in Canaday Lp and Moniac. The shelter for all evacuees in these areas has been moved to the Camden County Recreation Center at 1050 Wildcat Drive in Kingsland, GA. The evacuation order is for all of St. George, Canaday Loop, & Moniac. We advise all residents in these areas to follow this evacuation order for your safety. Hwy 121 & Hwy 94 are closed. The public information line on this fire is 904-452-4627. Charlton County Schools have been closed for Monday, May 8, 2017.”

About 2,000 people in Georgia's southernmost county were evacuated Saturday after the massive wildfire in the Okefenokee Swamp began to burn just a few miles from the St. George community.

The fire was within 3 miles of the community, West Mims public information officer Michael Davis said.
"It looks like everyone over there is getting out the best way they can get out," said Dave Sova, who helped his daughter pack up and evacuate from St. George. "It's very hectic over there right now."

The wildfire, which was started by lightning on April 6, has burned more than 211 square miles, mostly within the boundaries of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge boundaries and some public forestland in north Florida. It escaped firebreaks around the refuge on Friday and has burned over 20,000 acres of private land.

Fire officials said 535 firefighting personnel, including firefighting aircraft from Montana and Wyoming, are battling the fire. There have been no reports of injuries, however, a tractor plow working at the fire line was damaged when it caught fire, officials said. 

As of Saturday night, the fire was only 12 percent contained and those battling the fire said it may burn until the fall.

"Though there will be no actual red flag warning for the area tomorrow, all fire prediction criteria, from fuel conditions to temperatures in the 80s, dispersion indices and low humidity point to another dangerous day on the West Mims Fire," according to a fire incident team release Saturday night.

An area along the Georgia-Florida line is also under a dense smoke advisory for smoke that is expected to affect visibility in the towns of St. George, Callahan and Ratliff and in northern Duval County to the Jacksonville International Airport.

"If you look over that way at the sky you know it is almost like nighttime over there," Sova said.

PHOTOS: Fire moves toward St. George | Smoke over NE Florida

Evacuations ordered

State officials expanded the evacuation order that was issued Saturday. The order was expanded to cover the east side of Highway 121, north of Highway 94. 

Charlton County emergency management officials issued the following statement Saturday:

This is an evacuation order. A wildfire is approaching the area. Residents of Saint George should evacuate now. Please take your medications, hard to replace valuables and important papers with you. Please evacuate your pets with you. Again, this is an evacuation order for Charlton County residents of Saint George.

A temporary shelter was established in the gymnasium at the Folkston Elementary School at 34754 Okefenokee Drive but was moved Sunday to the Camden Community Recreation Center at 1050 Wildcat Drive in Kingsland, Georgia. 

"We're not sure what's going to happen right now, so it's open until further notice," County Administrator Shawn Boatright said.

He encouraged residents to bring whatever personal items they might need for an extended shelter stay.

Nassau County emergency management officials said that residents who live along County Road 121 and the St. Marys River need to make preparations now in case an emergency evacuation order is issued. 

Nassau County emergency management issued the following statement:

Emergency Management has issued a precautionary notice to Nassau County citizens on the west side of the county. 

The West Mims fire in the Okefenokee is moving east toward the St. Mary's River. Firefighters are working to keep the fire from the city of St. George, which is under a mandatory evacuation order.

Although an evacuation order has not been issued for Nassau County residents, those living near CR-121 and the St. Mary’s river, from Deep Creek and Old Quail Pkwy, north to Roy Sikes Rd, have been asked to prepare their families and property now, in case an evacuation becomes necessary.

Nassau County Emergency Operations Center is open. If you have questions, please call 904-548-0900, option 1.

Falling ash from the fire was reported all over Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. 

"I mean, it’s not just a little bit of ash. (My daughter's) front yard was covered was big ash, so I could see the big concern with possibly sending embers over there," Sova said.

Road closures

Due to fire and smoke, Highway 121 is now closed from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge south of the Georgia-Florida line, and Highway 94 is closed from the Chip Mill to the state line until further notice.

Highway 94 is closed in both directions from the 121/94 junction in St. George west to Lacy's Store. Local residents are being allowed in briefly to retrieve people and livestock.

As of Saturday evening, the wildfire covered 135,391 acres, which is slightly larger than the city of Tampa, Florida.

News4Jax has crews in the area and will update information on evacuations and the spread of the fire throughout the day.

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.