ST. GEORGE, Ga. – Firefighters called up a giant air tanker to attack the rapidly growing wildfire that threatened homes Tuesday on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp near the Georgia-Florida state line.
The modified DC-10 jetliner, capable of dumping 11,600 gallons of chemical fire retardant in a single run, was joining more than 700 firefighters and support personnel working to contain the blaze with bulldozers, helicopters and smaller planes.
The fire was burning Tuesday within a few miles of the small towns of St. George and Moniac in southeast Georgia. Emergency officials in surrounding Charlton County ordered those communities to evacuate as flames crept close Sunday. The fire has consumed another 20,000 acres since then.
For the first time in three days, the wildfire was not as aggressive as was anticipated, Georgia fire officials said Tuesday night. The fire experienced low, sporadic winds and light winds were expected to continue overnight.
Though smoke became a day-long issue -- creating low visibility conditions and causing most flights to be canceled -- firefighters on the ground made good progress in all areas around the fire, with the focus being the southern part of the fire adjacent to and south of Highway 94, officials said.
Tuesday afternoon, Nassau County Emergency Management advised residents living between County Road 121 and the Florida-Georgia border to prepare to evacuate.
"This is NOT an evacuation order, but Director Estep is strongly suggesting residents begin preparations for evacuation of families, pets, property and livestock should an evacuation order become necessary," the release said.
The multi-agency command team fighting the fire reported that no homes were burned, but warned that hot, dry conditions Tuesday could cause the fire to spread rapidly.
Kristina Asbury works at her family's convenience store in Moniac that has been without phones, credit card machines or lottery ticket sales for two days since fire burned through the phone line two days ago.
"Everybody’s coming in worried and, basically, we’re just hoping and praying the firefighters can get it out," Asbury said.
James Burnsed remained in his Moniac home Tuesday, though he said he could see the orange glow of flames through the trees outside his house Monday night. He said most of his neighbors had also stayed and were running lawn sprinklers in their yards in hopes grasses and plants wouldn't burn.
"It's absolutely not the best idea," Burnsed said. "We just don't want to lose our stuff and we want to protect it if we can."
With the massive fire spreading toward populated areas, more firefighters and resources were arriving to battle the fire and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized federal funds to help pay for the effort.
Jessica Boldin and her family evacuated 15 horses, six dogs and other animals from their Charlton County ranch as a vast wildfire emerging from the Okefenokee Swamp blackened trees behind their home.
Boldin said her family wasn't ready to leave yet, though the entire community was under a mandatory evacuation order.
"We don't budge on our property very easy," Bolin said Monday afternoon. "If it's down on top of us, we're ready to leave. We're not going to burn down with the house. But we're staying until it's on our behinds."
She's not alone.
Many in this community of about 2,000 near the Georgia-Florida state line stuck around Monday in spite of the evacuation order, not yet ready to leave everything to the mercy of the flames that have burned 143,893 acres over the past five weeks, and more than 34,000 acres since Saturday.
With temperatures forecast to climb into the 90s with low humidity and no chance of rain, firefighters worried what would come next.
"That's a worry every day, especially when you were going to have the variable winds and shifting winds," said Tom Stokesberry, a spokesman for the multi-agency team battling the fire. "I definitely know our lines will be tested, especially on the east side when those winds shift to west-southwest. But we have had firefighters in there for days shoring up those lines, putting out those hot spots."
Emergency officials in south Georgia's Charlton County ordered a mandatory evacuation Sunday for all of St. George and for nearby Moniac, small rural communities on the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Charlton County schools reopen Tuesday except for St. George Elementary School, which will be closed for the remainder of the week as it is used as a staging facility for firefighters.
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Students who attend Charlton County High School and Bethune Middle School who live in the St. George attendance area will be excused from school. School transportation will not be provided south of Ruth Petty Road.
The shelter for St. George evacuees was moved Sunday from St. George Elementary School to the Camden County Recreation Center at 1050 Wildcat Drive in Kingsland. The Red Cross has enough cots and supplies to take care of 300 people, but there are currently no evacuees in the shelter.
A public information meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Baker County High School at 1 Wildcat Drive in Glen St. Mary, Florida.
The fire has burned roughly 220 square miles since a lightning strike ignited the blaze April 6 inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The flames mostly stayed on public lands and posed no threat to populated areas until Saturday, when strong winds pushed the fire across the protective barrier plowed around the swamp's perimeter.
Fire officials said it will take tropical rains -- perhaps a named storm passing over the area -- to get the fire completely contained. That might not happen until the fall.
Burn bans are in effect in Camden and Charlton counties in Georgia, as well as Baker, Bradford, Clay, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns, Flagler and Alachua counties in Florida. Outdoor burning without a permit is never allowed in Duval County.
Burn ban restrict all residential outdoor burning of leaves and yard debris, fireworks of any kind, campfires, flares and other outdoor burning devices. Cooking fires within a barbecue or hibachi grill, or other similar devices specifically intended for cooking, are permitted.
Mason Pair and his wife had packed up their valuables and had a ladder standing by on Monday to put sprinklers on their roof. They also sent their son to stay with relatives outside the county. Pair said perhaps half of his neighbors had heeded the weekend order to evacuate. But he wasn't ready to join them -- yet.
"It's a little unnerving," said Pair, 26. "But the flames are going to have to push people out of here."
Officials aren't forcing people to leave their homes, but are urging them to get out before the fire gets any closer, said Susan Heisey, supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee refuge.
More than 700 firefighters and support personnel from across Georgia, Florida, 34 other states, DC and Puerto Rico were fighting the fire. Helicopters dumping water and tanker planes spraying fire retardant managed to keep the fire from spreading to homes in St. George over the weekend. Firefighters with tractor plows worked to carve a path of bare soil around the town as a barrier to the flames.
The Florida National Guard told News4Jax it has a Blackhawk helicopter in Brooksville on standby to help battle wildfires and ground troops are on standby across the state. Its last mission flown in support of fire suppression was on Saturday, with 60 buckets of water, or 34,440 gallons of water dropped.
Local schools were closed Monday because of the blaze and a shelter was opened at a recreation center farther away.
Heisey said there was no way to know how long the evacuation order would stand. Emergency officials in neighboring Nassau County, Florida, were urging some residents to prepare in case they are asked to evacuate.
James and Lisa Burnsed drove the 10 miles from their home in Moniac to the four-way stop with a small grocery on one corner that's the center St. George. The fire had jumped across Georgia Highway 94, their main evacuation route, late Sunday and they wanted to see if there was still a clear way out Monday.
"It's going to have to get pretty close to the house, I think, before we just head out," James Burnsed said. "We've got too much at stake just to leave it."
His wife said they had important documents, family photos and spare clothing packed and ready to go.
"But we've got goats and chickens," Lisa Burnsed said. "And we don't know how we're going to get them out."