South Georgia wildfire spreads, along with anxiety

A wildfire burning along the Georgia-Florida border picked up steam here Wednesday — fueled by hot, dry temperatures and shifting winds.

“It started to pick up today,” said Tom Stokesberry, a spokesman for the team of agencies fighting the blaze. “Our lines are going to be tested. Mother Nature is a powerful thing.”

IN-DEPTH: Resident stay to help, instead of flee fire

PHOTOS: South Georgia wildfire rages

Some 725 firefighters are battling the sprawling blaze near the Okefenokee Swamp, which officials say spread another 3,500 acres on Tuesday. There was no estimate yet of how far the fire — which is just 12 percent contained — spread on Wednesday. But given the conditions, officials said, the fire could have been more active than the day before.

And it could burn for months.

Although officials have ordered an evacuation for the southern half of Charlton County, most people appeared to be staying put.

Craig Crawford said the fire came within 200 feet of his home Saturday. Crawford, a 47-year-old farmer, took on the fire himself, jumping on a tractor and plowing it farther and farther back. Then airborne fire crews dumped load after load of flame retardant to protect his home and others nearby.

“I’m glad it’s over with,” he said Wednesday. Then he corrected himself, knowing it really wasn’t over.

The blaze is the largest active wildfire in the United States. People in this place say swamp fires are nothing new. They help renew growth there. But this one has spread well beyond the swamp and remains largely uncontained.

Dubbed the West Mims Fire, the blaze has burned 225 miles since it began April 6, ignited by a lightning strike.

No homes have been burned yet and no injuries have been reported.

Meanwhile, the smell of smoke hung heavy in the air Wednesday in St. George.

This sleepy town has been transformed by the blaze that continues to grow.

Travis Thompson said he has no intention of leaving his home or even closing his little restaurant, called the Woofy Wagon, that stands in the evacuation area.

What would it take for him to pack up and leave his home?

“Them telling me it’s going to burn down,” he said. “I’ll send my wife and kids away. But I’ll stay till the bitter end.”

Thompson was born and raised in this place, which is still dominated by timberlands.

“It’s a town where everybody knows your business, and everybody looks out for everybody,” he said.

His daughter, Destiny, who is 15, seemed a little more nervous.

“It’s scary,” she said. “I think God has it in his hands. He’ll provide for us.”

St. George has one traffic light, and it’s actually a caution light. The fire’s edge stands only about four miles away. Fire trucks and other emergency vehicles crisscross the streets. News crews have stationed themselves in the center of town.

Some streets have been blocked by official vehicles, their blue lights going all day long.

The sky is a hazy gray, and the smoke stings the eyes. Some people walk around with water bottles in hand. People say even the gnats, which are pretty bad this time of year, seem worse.

On Tuesday, a heavy air mass helped prevent the flames from spreading. But on Wednesday that air mass was gone and the wind picked up, gusting at 15 mph. Temperatures that crested 90 degrees kept the ground around the swamp dry and very combustible.

The fire has already spread well beyond the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, said refuge manager Michael Lusk. He said about 40 percent of the 143,893 scorched acres stand outside the refuge.

He said one bad day could bring the fire to people’s homes.

“It’s so unpredictable,” he said.

Everywhere, everybody was talking about the fire.

One person’s comment has stuck in Lusk’s head: The devil went down to Georgia and he sat down in the Okefenokee swamp.

Suzanne Dunn and her daughter, Heaven, have been gathering and distributing water and other supplies for the 700 firefighters, who’ve come from throughout the country. Other residents have been gathering supplies for the firefighters at the St. George Church of God.

“I feel sorry for them, going out in this heat, nonstop,” Suzanne Dunn said.

About the fire, she said she’s taking a wait-and-see attitude, carefully monitoring the news.

“Gonna see what Mother Nature does,” she said. “If she says she’s coming your way, we’ll prepare.”