Yulee brush fires likely sparked by train, forestry officials say

Evacuations lifted as firefighters get brush fires near SR 200 under control

YULEE, Fla. – Evacuations were called off early Wednesday evening in Nassau County as firefighters stopped the progression of several brush fires that were threatening a Yulee apartment complex.

The Florida Forest Service said, at least two fires that scorched about 8 acres around the railroad tracks between State Road 200 and Pages Dairy Road, were 100 percent contained by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Forestry officials believe the fires were most likely caused by sparks from a passing train.

As crews worked to contain the flames along the railroad tracks Wednesday afternoon, Nassau County sheriff's deputies started going door to door at Courtney Isles Apartment complex, telling residents to evacuate.

"All of a sudden, (deputies) came knocking on the door," said resident David Allen, who just moved to Florida from Chicago two weeks ago. "They were telling everyone we had to evacuate."

Hundreds of residents had been told to leave because of the fast-spreading series of brush fires, but the Florida Forest Service said only one outbuilding was damaged and evacuations were lifted about 30 minutes after being issued.

"When they started coming down the hall, I started putting stuff in my car. I could see the smoke over there," resident Howard Haisten said. "I saw the smoke in the wetlands behind us."

The wind and trees knocked down during Hurricane Irma made it difficult for fire crews to put out the blaze quickly.

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IMAGES: Crews battle brush fires near Chester Road

"We have a pretty wide 100 foot swath here down the tracks and the wind is just being funneled right down these tracks. It really picks up and starts gusting so any little ember could potentially blow outside the fire," said Annaleasa Winter, public information officer for Florida Forest Service. "This is the kind of blowdown we have to deal with that’s a challenge for our firefighters as far as accessing areas with heavy equipment and then later in the fire season, once these fuels dry out, this is going to be a concentrated source of heat that’s going to cause more challenges for us."

Residents along Pages Dairy and Chester roads had also been encouraged to leave the area, according to an automated call from the Nassau County Sheriff's Office.

But Billy Estep, director of Nassau County Emergency Management, said the only mandatory evacuations were for the Courtney Isles Apartment complex, which houses several hundred residents. That order was lifted just before 5 p.m.

Estep said small vegetation frozen over the winter provided fuel for the fires, and the apartment complex had been told to evacuate as a precaution.

No injuries were reported.

The Florida Forest Service said it and Nassau County Fire-Rescue worked throughout Thursday to secure fire lines and mop up.

Based on the weather patterns, forestry officials believe this will be a very challenging wildfire season. 

"The weather pattern and forecast is La Nina-type of conditions, which always indicate a more active fire season -- less rain, warmer temperatures," Winter said. "We’ve had a lot of heavy freezing, so a lot of fine dead fuels available to burn and now all this blowdown and hurricane debris that after it dries out will be a significant heat source as well for wildfires, so we’re looking at a pretty active fire season ahead.”

Last spring, sparks from a passing train ignited a fire along the same tracks.

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