By Russ Bynum
ST. GEORGE, Ga. | The wildfire burning for weeks in southeast Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp had gotten so close that Mason Pair could see its orange glow through the trees as large flakes of ash rained down around his home in St. George.
Facing an evacuation order, Pair and his wife packed up their valuables and had a ladder standing by to put sprinklers on their roof as the flames approached over the weekend.
But like many in this small community of about 2,000 near the Georgia-Florida state line, they remained home Monday rather than leave everything to the mercy of the flames now burning less than 3 miles from the center of town.
“It’s a little unnerving,” said the 26-year-old resident. “But the flames are going to have to push people out of here.”
Emergency officials in south Georgia’s Charlton County ordered a mandatory evacuation Sunday for all of St. George and for nearby Moniac, small rural communities on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Lightning sparked a wildfire April 6 inside the vast Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The blaze posed little threat to people or homes until Saturday, when strong winds pushed the flames across the fire breaks plowed along the refuge perimeter.
As of Monday, the fire had burned 210 square miles, including about 37 square miles in Charlton County.
Pair said perhaps half of his neighbors heeded the order to evacuate.
Officials weren’t forcing people to leave their homes, but were urging them to get out before the fire gets any closer, said Susan Heisey, supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee refuge.
“The accumulated moisture in the vegetation is at record-breaking lows right now,” said Heisey, a spokeswoman for the command team fighting the blaze. “These fuels, they’re getting one little piece of ash, and the fire’s just picking up and moving.”
More than 600 firefighters and support personnel were fighting the fire Monday. Helicopters dumping water and tanker planes spraying fire retardant managed to keep the fire from St. George homes over the weekend. Firefighters with tractor plows worked to carve a path of bare soil around the town to form a barrier.
Charlton County schools were closed Monday and a shelter was opened a safe distance away.
James and Lisa Burnsed drove the 10 miles from their home in Moniac to the four-way stop with a small grocery on one corner that’s the center St. George. The fire had jumped across Georgia Highway 94, their main evacuation route, late Sunday and they wanted to see if there was still a clear way out Monday.
“It’s going to have to get pretty close to the house, I think, before we just head out,” James Burnsed said. “We’ve got too much at stake just to leave it.”
His wife said they had important documents, family photos and spare clothing packed, and ready to go.
“But we’ve got goats and chickens,” Lisa Burnsed said. “And we don’t know how we’re going to get them out.”
Jessica Boldin, 23, grew up on a ranch in St. George where her mother trains horses. As fire burned behind their home Sunday, Boldin’s family evacuated 15 horses, six dogs and other animals to a friend’s property a few miles away.
Boldin stopped to gas up her truck Monday afternoon in St. George. Though a thick plume of smoke was rising not far away, Boldin wasn’t heading out of town just yet.
“I grew up there and we don’t budge on our property very easy,” Boldin said. “If it’s down on top of us, we’re ready to leave. We’re not going to burn down with the house. But we’re staying until it’s on our behinds.”