DISASTERS

Wildfire spreads in southern Georgia, forces evacuations

Several dozen people in Georgia's southernmost county have been evacuated after a wildfire in the Okefenokee Swamp has begun to burn just a few miles from the St. George community.

Saturday's evacuation initially included a sparsely populated rural area of Charleton County from Jim Crawford Loop road south to St. George on the west side of Highway 121. County Administrator Shawn Boatright couldn't immediately say how many residents might be affected in the latter area.

The wildfire started by lightning April 6 and has since burned more than 150 square miles (389 sq. kilometers) on public lands. It has burned almost entirely within the Okefenokee refuge boundaries — and some public forestland in north Florida — for the past month, but escaped fire breaks around the refuge Friday and has burned an estimated 1,000 acres on private land.

Earlier Saturday the St. George emergency manager said the entire unincorporated community of about 2,000 people was under a mandatory evacuation order, according to West Mims Public Information Officer Michael Davis.

Davis said the emergency manager later clarified that the evacuation was not mandatory and that only the people in the homes closest to the fire were asked to leave. The fire is now within 3 miles (5 kilometers) of the community, Davis said.

The area, on the Georgia-Florida line, is also under a dense smoke advisory that is expected to impact visibility in the towns of St. George, Callahan, Ratliff and northern Duval County near the Jacksonville International airport.

A temporary shelter has been opened in the gymnasium at the Folkston Elementary School. Boatright said it will stay open indefinitely.

"We're not sure what's going to happen right now, so it's open until further notice," he said.

He encouraged residents to bring whatever personal items they might need for an extended shelter stay.