First look inside lines of massive Okefenokee fire
Fire started by lightning April 6 in Okefenokee has burned 225 square miles
ST. GEORGE, Ga. – Five weeks after a lightning strike started a fire that has spread through and now beyond the boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, those battling the blaze brought News4Jax inside the fire lines for the first time.
The so-called West Mims Fire has scorched more than 225 square miles -- more than 25 square miles since it started spreading into populated areas of Charlton County last weekend. It has come within two miles of St. George, prompting evacuations of that town and neighboring Moniac. St. George Elementary School has been closed all week and buses have not run in some areas and there's no indication when it will reopen.
Residents of Nassau County bordering the Florida-Georgia border were put on alert that they may be asked to evacuate. It didn't help calm nerves when an unrelated fire burned 200 acres near Yulee on Thursday.
Inside the perimeter of the Charlton County fire, the media was shown two buildings that were destroyed Monday when flames, which at points leaped 100 feet in the air, jumped Highway 94 destroying two buildings, including one that was a Georgia Forestry office. Fire crews were using it has a staging area and had about 30 minutes to get themselves and their equipment out.
In some areas, there was a visible layer of fire pink retardant where air tankers made drops to try to protect their lines. In other areas, 60- to 70-foot contingency lines have been cut to defend populated areas.
Crews from other fire departments are on watch in front of homes to project them if fire approaches.
Air drops are continuing on outer areas as a way to keep the fire from spreading.
"Hopefully it will help tremendously," said Susie Heisey, chief ranger for the Okefenokee refuge. "But we still are in drought conditions with extreme heat and really low humidity. The potential is really high today for fire growth."
With the fire only 15 percent contained, fire managers believe the fire could burn into the fall, after some months of tropical rain.
Heisey said no homes have burned and no injuries had been reported from the fire. While officials in surrounding Charlton County have urged residents nearest the fire to leave, many have stayed in hopes of protecting their homes.
The outpouring of support for the firefighters has overwhelmed the volunteers at the St. George Church of God, which is collecting food, drinks and supplies for the people on the front lines.
"We've had an overwhelming response," said Casie Crumbley. "Texas has sent water. Tennessee has sent water. Right now, we're just asking that you call the church."
The phone number is 912-843-2285.
HOW YOU CAN HELP: Donations for firefighters
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.
Sixth Street Veterinary Hospital in Macclenny has offered to temporarily house cats and dogs displaced by the fire. For more information, click here.
Burn bans are in effect in Camden, Charlton and Glynn 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, and Thursday Mayor Lenny Curry extended the ban to include campfires and bonfires.
Burn bans 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.
Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.