Charlton County schools to resume Monday

With conditions improving, evacuation order lifted

ST. GEORGE, Ga. – With reinforced firebreaks holding and more rain dumped on the West Mims Fire than expected over the past few days, Charlton County officials have announced Sunday that some schools in the area will resume “normal operations” on Monday.

Classes will resume for St. George Elementary, officials said. Students who attend Bethune Middle School and Charlton County High School who live in the St. George attendance area will also return to school. 

Firefighters have used the last few days with less wind to reinforce firebreaks to keep the fire spilling out of the Okefenokee Swamp and away from populated areas of Charlton County. As a result, the evacuation order for the Georgia bend, St. George, Canaday Loop and Moniac residents was lifted at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

"Our biggest point today is that we had a lot of lightning strikes with the precipitation that came through, over one-thousand in the immediate area surrounding the refuge with 300 within the refuge," said Hanna Thompson-Welch, West Mims Fire public information officer.

Tom Stokesberry, with the U.S Forestry Service, said more rain fell on the fire than expected and the containment lines on the eastern side of the fire are holding up well.

Posted Sunday on the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Facebook page:

Rain and thunder storms are a mixed blessing on fires. Yesterday's storms brought as much as 2.5 inches of rain on parts of this fire. What welcome relief for firefighters and local communities, though temporary. The evacuation orders have been lifted and roads have been reopened. However, during those thunderstorms, roughly 300 lightning strikes occurred within the refuge area alone (1800 in the entire storm area). Remember, #WestMimsFire was caused by a lightning strike. The hot and dry conditions are not over. The drought conditions are severe and long-term. It will take "named rain" (a tropical storm or hurricane) before this fire is not a threat to south Georgia. But, the are thankful for a bit of respite amidst "the storm."​

The so-called West Mims Fire has scorched more than 235 square miles -- nearly six times the size of Disney World -- since it was started by a lightning strike April 6. It has come within 2 miles of homes in 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.

The multi-agency team fighting the fire said in a news release there's a 30 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms in the area Saturday, but rain is expected to be "too light to impact burning material." Storms could bring winds that fan the fire and help it grow.

The wind shift is directing smoke from the fire to the northeast, into coastal Georgia rather than northeast Florida, which has suffered from smoky skies most of the week. But the conditions are also expected to lower humidity with winds gusting to 25 mph, which are favorable to extreme fire behavior and increase the potential of wind-driven spot fires.

"West, southwest winds are going to test the eastside, not only here in St. George, but north of town as well," Public Information Officer Joe Zwierzchowski said Friday . "We’ve seen that coming though in the forecast, so we’re working to build these lines, widen these lines and improve them."

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.

There is some concern that the two fingers of fire stretching from the wildlife refuge into southeast Charlton County could grow together.

In addition to 804 personnel from across the nation working on the fire, crews from neighboring fire departments are on watch in front of homes to protect them if fire approaches.

The wind shift did allow emergency managers to reopen Georgia 121 Friday morning, which had been closed since last weekend the fire began several days of rapid growth. But Highway 94 -- all the way through St. George -- was later shut down until further notice due to the fire and smoke.

"There’s a lot of potential out there. There’s a lot of timber and I’m not exactly sure what’s out ahead of this thing," Zwierzchowski said. "The goal is to stop it where we’ve got it, hold what we’ve got and prevent it from growing any further."

As News4Jax got to go behind the fire lines for the second time on Friday, some of the more than 700 firefighters and support personnel working to contain the fire said they have quickly become a tight-knit group. 

"It's like a great big football team. We get together and everyone helps and cooperates," said Mark Clay, a firefighter from North Mississippi. "Teamwork makes the dream work."

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 as a staging area and had about 30 minutes to get themselves and their equipment out.

Air drops are continuing on outer areas as a way to keep the fire from spreading.

"So far, we’ve dropped 950,000 gallons of retardant," Zwierzchowski said

With the fire only 18 percent contained, fire managers believe the fire could burn into the fall, after some months of tropical rain.

Firefighters said their biggest challenge is the dry conditions, but it's also hard to stay cool with the heavy protective gear they have to wear in the heat. Crews are on a two to three rotation, and some were just beginning their shift Friday, which means they will miss out on spending time with their loved ones on Mother's Day. 

"I've got a mother and a wife and a mother-in-law -- (I'm) wishing them all three of them a Happy Mother's Day this Sunday. I'll give them a rose and a vase when I get back," Clay said. 

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.

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.

Georgia Gov. Nate Deal on Thursday signed an executive order lifting specific restrictions on timber trucks to accommodate the removal of fire-damaged timber from Charlton, Clinch and Ware counties.

READ: Gov. Deal's executive order

Fire managers will hold another public meeting at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Fargo Charter School Auditorium. The address if 80 City Hall Drive, Fargo, Georgia, 31631. 

Outpouring support for first responders

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.

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