JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two boys were arrested and charged with starting fires in drought-stricken south Georgia, which has been battling widespread wildfires for weeks, officials announced Thursday.
One of the arrests was made after bloodhounds found a footprint left at a fire scene, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission's arson investigation task force.
A 16-year-old boy was charged with setting a fire near Jesup; the other boy, age 12, was charged with starting a small grass fire near Waycross. Both are being charged as juveniles and have been released to their parents, authorities said.
"These fires were all very small and were knocked out quickly by the fire departments," Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine said Thursday. "But with conditions as dry as they are, they could've become very major."
The fires were unrelated, and authorities don't believe they are connected to six larger fires being investigated as suspicious by the Georgia Forestry Commission's arson investigation task force, said Darryl Jones, a forestry spokesman.
Jones said both boys admitted setting the fires when investigators questioned them.
"Typically with juveniles, you keep asking them, 'Why did you do this?' and they don't give you a clear answer," Jones said. "They just keep saying, 'I don't know."'
The largest wildfire — which has scorched 107,360 acres of forest and Okefenokee Swamp in Ware and Charlton Counties — started April 16 when a tree fell onto a power line near Waycross.
Another large fire was started by a lightning strike in the swamp last weekend and has burned 68,650 acres.
The fires allegedly set by the suspects were eventually contained.
Calmer wind and a sprinkling of rain helped firefighters makes gains Thursday on the massive wildfires that have forced hundreds of people to evacuate homes in northeast Florida and Georgia.
"Things are generally better each day," said Jim Harrell, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.
The two drought-parched states have been battling blazes for weeks, with nearly 300 square miles charred in all. The problem was so serious, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was looking for salvation from what would typically be a nemesis — a brewing Atlantic storm.
Andrea, the first named storm of the year, weakened into a subtropical depression with 35-mph winds Thursday morning, a day after forming. Less than an inch of rain was expected to reach the fire area, but the state still has a good chance of getting dousing rain this weekend from the storm systems that flooded Midwest communities during the week.
Officials tightened lawn-watering restrictions for South Florida residents and golf courses in an effort to offset unprecedented drought conditions. The moves follow a similar decision last month to try to halve agricultural water use in the region.
Across Florida and parts of southeastern Georgia, haze and a burning smell tainted the air Thursday. Seven homes in Florida were destroyed, several stretches of highway were closed and a dusting of ash coated cars and buildings. Health officials warned the elderly and people with breathing problems to stay indoors.
Crist and Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett of the Florida National Guard said the state has about 11,000 soldiers available and enough equipment, such as trucks and helicopters, to help Florida through the spring wildfire season. About 1,200 firefighters in the state were battling 236 fires that had charred 87,285 acres — about 136 square miles.
"Florida is prepared. Florida is ready. I don't know any state that is more prepared than Florida," Crist said after the tour.
A wildfire in Baker County, which started when Georgia's largest fire on record jumped the St. Mary's River, kept residents of the tiny community of Taylor away from their homes for a third day.
About 600 residents of a mobile home park were forced from their homes for several hours after a fire sprouted and quickly grew to 20 acres Thursday morning in Lee County, north of Fort Myers.
Most of Florida's wildfires have been started by lightning, although the Division of Forestry was investigating nine suspected cases of arson.
In northern Minnesota, high wind fanned a fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Officials labeled it a "red flag" day, with low humidity making conditions worse.
"We're back to the conditions we had in the first two days of the fire," said Daria Day, a spokeswoman for the agencies fighting the fire, which had burned more than 34 square miles and destroyed about 45 structures since it started Saturday.
A squad of elite firefighters was taking command of the blaze, which had burned its way into Canada. Nearly 450 firefighters were on the scene Thursday.