Residents evacuated twice as fires continue to rage

WAYCROSS, Ga. - Emergency officials told residents Thursday to evacuate their homes near a wildfire in the Okefenokee Swamp, where gusty winds threatened to spread the blaze across a four-lane highway in southeast Georgia.


Ware County sheriff's deputies went door-to-door in Astoria, a tiny community three miles southeast of Waycross, on Thursday afternoon, asking people to flee. Most had just returned home after being evacuated for several hours Wednesday as the fire raged nearby.

"My nerves just can't take it anymore," said Mary Howell, 51, as she packed stacks of framed family photos in the trunk of her Lincoln Towncar for the second time in two days. "I haven't slept in a week since this stuff started."

Wildfires have blackened about 61,100 acres - or 95 square miles - of forest and swamp parched by drought in southeast Georgia over the past 11 days. Officials say 18 homes have been destroyed.

Susan Reich, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said residents were being evacuated from Astoria and other nearby rural neighborhoods, but she could not immediately say how many people or homes were affected.

Emergency officials also closed 16 miles of U.S. Highway 1 and railroad tracks running alongside the highway near the Okefenokee Swamp, where strong winds rekindled smoldering embers from fires that spread rapidly through the swamp Tuesday and Wednesday.

"There is a possibility U.S. 1 could be crossed by fire," said Eric Mosley, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Coda Beverly, 21, had spare clothes and food piled in the back seat of her car before deputies arrived Thursday to tell her family to leave. A firetruck sat in the front yard at her house, which backs onto woods at the edge of the swamp. Sprinklers rained water on the roof to keep it moist.

"When they come in and say you have to leave, nobody wants to," Ms. Beverly said. "But the car is packed, and we're ready to go."

Her grandmother, Nell Beverly, lives next door. She said each evacuation has left her worried she may not see her home again.

"The danger right now, it's unpredictable," said Nell Beverly, 65. "Your whole life is sitting there in front of you, waiting to be wiped out."

Sustained winds of up to 20 mph from the southwest were forecast Thursday, increasing chances the fire would spread across the four-lane, divided highway that connects Waycross with Jacksonville, Fla.

If the blaze crosses the highway, firefighters said, it could threaten the towns of Nahunta and Hoboken, which are about nine and 18 miles to the northeast.

"All there is between U.S. 1 and Nahunta and Hoboken is just timber, tons and tons of timber with unlimited fuel," Mr. Mosley said.

The fire rapidly burned about 6,000 acres in the swamp Tuesday and early Wednesday near the private, nonprofit Okefenokee State Park, a popular tourist attraction. Officials evacuated about 70 homes in the communities of Astoria and Braganza early Wednesday, but let them return home by daybreak.

About 1,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes near Waycross last week, and most have not been allowed to return. An additional 5,000 people had been urged to voluntarily evacuate because of health risks posed by the heavy smoke that filled the area.