WAYCROSS, Ga. - Moments before inmate Lester Lewis began another day battling massive wildfires, he got a send-off from a man who says he was brought here by God.
Since 2000, the Rev. Will Steere, an ordained nondenominational minister, has traveled the country in his 14-foot box van ministering to wildfire crews, a calling he said he received nearly 30 years earlier. The Rev. Steere, a 74-year-old spark plug from Oceanside, Calif., prays for practically everything from firefighters' safety to resolving family problems.
On Thursday, Mr. Lewis, 43, spoke of his pain over serving a 15-year prison sentence on drug charges for a crime he said he didn't commit. The Rev. Steere put his leathery hands on Mr. Lewis' orange shirt, and they bowed heads.
"God, give our friend here an opportunity to get out of the situation he's in," said the minister, who has a wisp of a white mustache on his friendly face. "Help him to forgive."
Mr. Lewis said the Rev. Steere's presence brought him comfort as he prepared to face another difficult, smoke-filled day as one of dozens of Georgia inmates fighting the fires.
"Spiritually, emotionally, it helps my day," he said. "It gives me some hope."
The Rev. Steere brought hope to many others fighting fires that grew Thursday to consume 93,266 acres in Charlton and Ware counties, with about 75 percent containment. Though the fires grew 4,000 acres overnight, forestry officials said residents shouldn't worry for now because most of the flames have moved toward the Okefenokee Swamp.
Twenty-two homes have been destroyed by the fires, though no houses were threatened Thursday. The massive fire is primarily spreading toward the south, eating up ground along such a large fire line that the increase in size is not unexpected, said Robin Cole, a Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman."
The Rev. Steere, who brought his inspiration to the fire about two weeks ago, said a neighbor prophesied during a prayer meeting in 1973 that he would one day preach to nations.
He worked for years giving sightseers rides in Anaheim, Calif., but later sold his tour business and went to work for a man who provided transportation to professional wildfire crews.
"I've been in just about every state you can think of," the Rev. Steere said.
"There is such a need for people to know Jesus. They need spiritual uplifting and to be prayed for."
The Rev. Steere has a 35-foot-long prayer tent in his van, a box full of King James Bibles and a plastic TV stand he uses for a pulpit during Sunday services. On other days, when he's not under cover, he gathers people in circles for prayer and also ministers to them individually.