JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After two days of battling the Yellow Bluff Fire on Jacksonville's Northside, which forced Interstate 95 to close for 19 hours, the fire has blackened 600 acres and is about 55% contained.
On Thursday afternoon, it moved west toward I-95 and jumped the highway into a wilderness area -- the Seton Creek Preserve and the Four Creeks Wildlife Management Area. Though most of the area is considered to be marshland and swampland, 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 Florida Forest Service Operations Manager Mike Work. "Then once you get fire to it, it burns across the top."
Midday Friday, the Jacksonville FFS office tweeted that it has ordered more state resources and specialized equipment from the St. Johns River Water Management District to help fight the fire in the marsh. The agency has two helicopters dropping water and 14 dozers were working to improve fire lines.
Crews continued to monitor the wildfire as the Memorial Day weekend began. The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department said 12 team members were assigned to the wildfire Friday. They will monitor the fire while working five-hour shifts.
JFRD had three brush trucks, two tankers, one engine, one rescue vehicle, one command center and one district chief assigned. JFRD is monitoring radio communications and tower camera video imagery from inside the command center, also known as COMVAN.
As the Yellow Bluff Fire continues to smolder, the work will go into the night as meetings will be held to plan on how to keep everyone safe and keep the wildfire contained on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.
An FFS spokesman said it could take several days, even a week before the fire is completely out, but he was feeling good about what the progress they made Friday.
"I think the conditions are in our favor," FFS spokesman Terrell Drew said. "As long as the smoke stays up and we have a good dispersion to stay off the roads, I think we'll be OK."
Work said Friday's conditions had drastically improved from the conditions Thursday.
"On the northern edge of the fire, out in the marsh, all of that is cold out. It either hit an interior creek coming off the main marsh or the helicopter has put it out with no smoke at all and no flare-ups," Work said. "Coming down 95, the crews got a lot of good mop-up. (There's) not as much smoke today, and the road is open and it’s still staying clear."
Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted Friday morning that he was in constant contact with the Florida Highway Patrol about the fire and highway closure situation.
"I encourage everyone impacted to remain vigilant and heed all instructions from law enforcement," DeSantis said.
On Saturday, crews walked News4Jax about a quarter-mile into the woods to show what they've been up against.
The Marsh Master set out to flatten the charred area to lessen the chances of sparks and flare-ups.
Some of the hot spots could be seen still smoking underneath the ashes, but some parts are completely burned. Firefighters said the brush is severely dry due to the high temperatures and lack of rain.
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 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.
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, prestaged, 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 were watching hot spots.
News4Jax was told one Forest Service firefighter was injured Thursday after he slipped and fell and that he 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," Commissioner Nicole "Nikki" Fried, whose Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services includes the Forest Service, said in a statement Friday. “While the Florida Highway Patrol has reopened I-95, all travelers should closely monitor the media for updates on safety and I-95’s status throughout Memorial Day weekend. We thank our brave Forest Service firefighters for working swiftly to control these wildfires."
Also on Friday, according to the Highway Patrol, a 200-acre wildfire and prescribed burn continued to burn 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. Troopers said smoke from that fire may drift as far east as the Baker-Columbia county line and as far north as the Hamilton-Columbia county line. 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.