Evacuations Ordered in Florida, Minnesota as Wildfires Grow

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Further evacuations were ordered Monday in windy, parched Florida as a wildfire crept within a quarter-mile of several homes, one of numerous blazes that occupied crews around the country.

A fast-growing fire forced evacuations in northeastern Minnesota, and the area damaged by Georgia's largest-ever wildfire surpassed 100,000 acres — about 156 square miles — as that blaze continued to spread.

Residents in at least three areas of Florida were ordered to leave, and hundreds more were on standby. About 20 homes in Walton County in the Panhandle were evacuated as a 300-acre fire threatened the neighborhood, said Jim Harrell, a spokesman for the state Division of Forestry.

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A second evacuation was ordered quickly as a fire sprang up near the Wekiva River in central Florida, Lake County spokesman Chris Patton said. That order was lifted hours later after crews got the 1,000-acre fire under control.

A third evacuation was ordered in Alachua County north of Gainesville on Monday night due to a fire larger than 3,000 acres, or more than 4.5 square miles. It was not clear exactly how many people were affected, but Harrell said it is a rural area with scattered homes.

Officials said conditions across the state were critical, with humidity at dangerously low levels inland and winds gusting over 20 mph.

"It's getting interesting and I don't think it's going to get better soon," state Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate said.

In all, there were at least 260 fires burning Monday in Florida, covering about 19,000 acres. Nearly 50 of those started Sunday, about half of them caused by lightning from a line of thunderstorms that moved through the state too quickly to quench the blazes, Harrell said.

Firefighters in Grand Marais, Minn., called for reinforcements as a wildfire continued to burn through the northeastern Minnesota forests, damaging 40 buildings and pushing about 100 people from their homes.

John Stegmeir, the incident commander, said he called for a doubling of firefighting crews to 300 as the fire grew to 16,500 acres — more than twice the size it had been Sunday night.

"You are going to see a lot more people here," he said. "We are just going to need more stuff to do what we need to do."

The fire advanced into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota on Sunday. Officials ordered people to leave the vicinity.

Northeastern Minnesota has been in a drought since last summer, and no rain was expected for several days.

In southeastern Georgia, three weeks after the state's largest wildfire on record ignited near Waycross, sustained winds of 20 mph from the northeast pushed the fire deeper into the Okefenokee Swamp, giving firefighters a chance to fortify fire breaks.

Lightning strikes from weekend thunderstorms started three new fires near the center of Okefenokee and posed no immediate threat to people outside the swamp.

The storms failed to bring rain to ease the extreme drought conditions.

"The fire areas themselves got next to nothing, just a little bit of sprinkles," said David Spear, a spokesman for the firefighters' joint information center. "You need days and days of heavy soaking rain to have any appreciable effect."

Officials said Monday the wildfire had blackened 100,420 acres. The Georgia Forestry Commission has said the vast wildfire was caused by a fallen tree striking a power line, but the agency suspects arsonists may have started six smaller fires that later flared up nearby.

No injuries were reported in any of the wildfires.

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