JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As millions of travelers began to hit the road for Memorial Day weekend, they to navigate around a Northeast Florida traffic nightmare. A 450-acre wildfire burning near the Duval-Nassau County Line shut down Interstate 95 for 11 miles in both directions for 19 hours.
Friday morning, the Florida Highway Patrol reopened the highway, although they urged people to drive with caution as firefighters were still working in the area.
Thursday afternoon, the interstate was closed from State Road 200 in Yulee to I-295 in North Jacksonville because of the Yellow Bluff Fire, and visibility was reduced to just 40 yards because of the smoke, according to FHP spokesman Sgt. Dylan Bryan.
"This morning at 5 a.m., the smoke laid in so thick, it was fortunate the highway was closed," Annaleasa Winter, a spokeswoman for Florida Forest Service, said. "We're working closely with FHP to get it open as quickly as we can, but right now, it is just too dangerous."
Visual representation of what a difference a few hours could be. As we prepare to open I-95, please use caution in the area. Crews will be on scene continuing to work the #YellowBluffFire. Please be advised that the road can be closed again if conditions worsen. pic.twitter.com/XEheI7oEQ2— FHPJacksonville (@FHPJacksonville) May 24, 2019
Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted Friday morning that he was in constant contact with FHP about the fire and highway closure situation.
"I encourage everyone impacted to remain vigilant and heed all instructions from law enforcement,' DeSantis said.
Drivers reported Thursday that traffic was already moving slowly along U.S. 17, even before the evening rush hour began. There were also major traffic delays along I-95.
Drivers said it took them three hours to move 5 miles, and many drivers feared they would run out of gas. Some said they saw people getting out of their cars to walk their dogs.
As Friday rush hour traffic builds, more people will be on the roads because of the Memorial Day weekend, so people need to consider that on top of the issues with the brush fire.
AAA says late afternoon Friday will be the worst time to drive because commuters leave work early and then mix with holiday travelers.
FHP is monitoring the conditions in the area and warned drivers that visibility may deteriorate quickly due to fog and smoke-type conditions. Drivers are urged to slow down, use caution and turn on low-beam headlights.
"If you come into an area of low visibility -- whether it’s fog, smoke or something like that -- the rules of the road still apply. You’ve got to maintain proper control of your vehicle, be observant while driving, reduce your speed and utilize your headlights and just drive as safe as possible," Bryan said. "Absolutely (turn your headlights on) because visibility is reduced. Not only can you see a little bit better, everybody else can see you, as well. With that being said, we use low-beam headlights. We don’t use emergency flashers when the vehicle is in motion. So utilize low-beam headlights and drive cautiously through the area."
Not only is the smoke a concern for drivers, but it's also a concern for those who live near the area where the wildfire started.
The National Weather Service Jacksonville said Friday that a dense smoke advisory remained in effect around the Yellow Bluff Fire. Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases, NWS Jacksonville said.
A dense smoke advisory continues this morning around the #YellowBluffFire near I-95 in northern Duval and western Nassau Counties. Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your— NWS Jacksonville (@NWSJacksonville) May 24, 2019
respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. #flwx #gawx #jaxwx @JaxReady pic.twitter.com/OP7zf16woU
What we know about the Yellow Bluff Fire
The Yellow Bluff Fire appears to be a complex of many fires, as spot-overs increase as it moves west toward I-95. West of the highway is more wilderness area -- the Seton Creek Preserve and the Four Creeks Wildlife Management Area. Though most of it is considered to be marsh and swamplands, it's not wet enough to keep from catching fire.
“What was holding water two months ago is not holding water on the surface, so those surface fuels are now exposed. They have been curing under the sun -- the hot dry sun. Low humidity cures it all," said FFS Operations Manager Mike Work. "Then once you get fire to it, it burns across the top.”
The Forest Service first reported about 3 p.m. Wednesday that firefighters were working two wildfires off U.S. 17 and Yellow Bluff Road. The north fire had been 100% contained by the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department. The south fire was 40% contained by the Forest Service at that time, but it burned into the marsh. Forestry officials said that fire continued to burn from U.S. 17 west to I-95 and equipment could not access the north and south edges in the marsh.
According to the Florida Forest Service spokeswoman Annaleasa Winter, the fires appeared to have started near the train tracks that run parallel to Main Street, but it was too early to determine whether the fires were started by sparks from a moving train.
"It could have been something thrown out of the train. It could have been exhaust. Sometimes, it is the catalytic converter. Sometimes it’s the friction from the brakes," Winter said. "This time of year, we are going to see more human-caused fires, but people need to be very careful."
The Florida Department of Agriculture is assisting the Forest Service with the investigation into the cause.
As of about 1 p.m. Thursday, according to FFS, the wildfire was estimated at 200 acres in size, but the wildfire doubled in size -- to 400 acres -- in a span of two hours. As of 9 p.m. Thursday, the Yellow Bluff Fire had grown to 450 acres and was 30% contained.
On the ground and in the air, crews are working around the clock to contain the Yellow Bluff Fire. Forestry officials said just before 3 p.m. Thursday that dozer crews were making good progress building fire lines along the south edge between U.S. 17 and I-95. The fire continued to burn up to I-95, causing heavy smoke on the interstate and leading the Highway Patrol to close it in both directions.
"Where it is high and dry, the dozers are working. The aircraft is going to be critical today. The spotter plane is in place and we have the helicopter dropping water," Winter said. "We have more dozers en route. We are going to try and work on improving lines where we can and work on those edges."
Winter told News4Jax late Thursday afternoon that three spots of the Yellow Bluff Fire jumped over I-95 at some point. Dozers then began working spots on the west side of I-95 to try and control those areas.
“The smoke was really thick, you could see it blowing across the interstate and some ashes and embers got over to the other side and did start some new fires," she said.
Fire crews already had a plan in place when that happened.
“We had four pieces of equipment on the west side of 95 just for that reason, pre-staged, so when it happened, we could engage it quickly," Work said. "Plus, with the help of the helicopter, pounded it really quickly and we were able to keep it to 1½ to 2 acres.”
Throughout Thursday afternoon, crews with FFS, FHP and JFRD were fighting flames on the west side of the fire. On the east side, close to where the fire started, they're watching hot spots.
The Forest Service has 29 firefighters battling the wildfire and is using 13 bulldozers and one helicopter. JFRD has roughly 25 firefighters fighting the fire and is using four engines, three tankers and two brush trucks.
News4Jax was told one Forest Service firefighter was injured Thursday after he slipped and fell, and was treated by Nassau County first responders. There was no immediate word on his condition.
According to FFS, no structures were threatened at last check.
“These wildfires can build quickly and can be extremely dangerous, so residents in affected areas should continue to follow directions from state and local officials,” said Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried, whose Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services includes the Florida Forest Service. “With the Memorial Day travel weekend approaching, all travelers should closely monitor the media for updates on safety and I-95’s reopening. We thank our brave Forest Service firefighters for working swiftly to control these wildfires.”
Also on Thursday, according to the Highway Patrol, a 200-acre wildfire was burning in the area of Northeast Gum Swamp Road within the Osceola National Forest in Columbia County -- about 70 miles west of the Yellow Bluff Fire. Drivers are urged to use caution when traveling in that area, as visibility may deteriorate quickly, especially during the nighttime and early morning hours. Drivers are reminded to reduce their speed and utilize low-beam headlights.