South Georgia wildfires: Rather than flee, some folks stay to help

Ga. 94 near St. George. PHOTO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ga. 94 near St. George. PHOTO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

He has loaded valuables into two vehicles and has his tractor positioned toward his South Georgia home, just in case. But Steve O’Steen isn’t letting the wildfires about 3 miles away force him from his home. Yet.

“I don’t know anybody that’s left,” O’Steen told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ll have to see what tomorrow brings.”

It has been more than a month since a bolt of lightning sparked a wildfire in South Georgia. And late Tuesday, there was no sign of it being extinguished as the blaze crept closer to homes, burning nearly 220 square miles in a wildlife refuge.

The West Mims fire started on April 6 and is threatening more than 250 residences near the Georgia-Florida line. As of Tuesday afternoon, 140,409 acres were burning, but only 12 percent of the fire was contained, according to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

The forecast for continued dry, hot conditions isn’t making battling the flames any easier.

Rainfall fails to stop wildfire near Georgia-Florida line and the wildfire may not be extinguished until November, official says.

Casie Crumbley said her family was ordered to evacuate from St. George. But instead, the mother of two was volunteering at her church, St. George Church of God. The church, with a congregation of about 120, has become the place where firefighters can take showers, get a meal, and grab some bottled water or bug spray.

Her church, like others in the area, is doing its part to help those working so hard to save homes, Crumbley said. For now, she’s not thinking about the approaching flames.

“I think we’ll have enough time to leave,” she said.

On Tuesday, a giant air tanker made round trips from Chattanooga, Tenn., to dump 12,000 pounds of retardant. The tanker and its crew joined lots of other machinery and people involved in battling the flames — including nine helicopters, five fixed-wing tankers, 69 wild-land fire engines, six bulldozers, 42 tractor plows, two 20-person hot shot crews, and various overhead and support positions.

Also Tuesday, FEMA authorized federal funds to help fight the wildfires, which have forced evacuation orders for more than 1,000 residents. Nearly 700 others are actively fighting the blaze.

On the southern side of Charlton County, mandatory evacuations were in place for St. George and Moniac residents, as well as those in the Canaday Loop and Georgia Bend communities. Some schools in the area planned to re-open Wednesday, but evacuees will be excused from class, according to a note on the City of Folkston website. For now, Okefenokee Swamp Park remains open.

A firetruck passes as a plume of smoke rising from a wildfire burning just outside the town of St. George, Ga. (AP photo/Russ Bynum/May 8, 2017)

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“It’s very scary,” Dixie McGurn said Tuesday.

McGurn and her family own Whistlin Dixie, a restaurant and shop on Main Street in Folkston. She’s 23 miles from the fires, but still close enough to want to help.

“It’s what you’re supposed to do,” she said. “When you have a small, rural town, we’re to help. It doesn’t matter who you are.”

Monday night, pan after pan of lasagna, bread sticks and green beans were taken to those fighting the fires — people McGurn says she'll likely never meet. Still, she's grateful for the work and hopes there is relief soon.

“They’re risking their lives,” she said. “I thank all of them.”

On Sunday, O'Steen said fire crews from all over Georgia were on his street guarding homes. Monday, he saw firefighters from as far away as Wyoming and Oklahoma. His daughter has taken hamburgers to the crews keeping the family's home of 44 years safe, O'Steen said. He's hopeful the winds won't move the flames any closer.

In the meantime, residents are focused on doing their part to stay safe and help those in need.

“Everyone comes together because everyone knows someone that’s being affected,” McGurn said.