Firefighters battle blazes in drought-stricken southeast Ga.

Associated Press • Apr 27, 2007 at 9:39 AM

WAYCROSS, Ga. - Firefighters worked Friday to keep wildfires from spreading to miles of drought-stricken forest near the Okefenokee Swamp as most residents evacuated from more than 100 homes were allowed to return.

Wildfires have destroyed 22 homes and charred about 61,000 acres, or 95 square miles, of forest in southeast Georgia in 12 days.

"The fire continues and that area is still being monitored closely," said Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Tracy J. Smith. "We don't want people to get comfortable in that area. The winds have been extremely active."

Jamey Cribbs, 21, and his family were ordered to flee their home Thursday for the second time this week in tiny Braganza community, just three miles southeast of Waycross. But he and his father sneaked in along back roads overnight to make sure no burning ash from the fire fell on their home at the edge of the swamp.

"I'm ready for it to be over," Cribbs said. "It's only been two weeks, but that seems like a lifetime."

U.S. Highway 1, which links Waycross with Jacksonville, Fla., remained closed for 16 miles near the entrance of the private, nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park.

A second, much smaller fire raged near Nahunta, east of Waycross, where officials said about 30 homes had to be evacuated. Those evacuations were still in effect as of late Friday. Firefighters contained the blaze near Nahunta last week, but gusty winds caused it to flare back to life Thursday afternoon. Valdosta firefighter Jeff Thibodeau, who joined the army of firefighters from Georgia and neighboring states helping fight the blaze near Waycross, spent the night shift Thursday replenishing fire trucks with water to keep the fire at bay in the swamp. "It's aggravating, because you just want to grab it by the throat and put it out," Thibodeau said after coming off his shift Friday morning. "This fire is so big, there's not enough water in the state of Georgia to put it out. All you can do is let it run its course in the woods and protect the structures." Jason Thornton was losing hope anybody could protect his rural Ware County home the swamp fire's path. A sheriff's deputy arrived at his door Thursday afternoon ordering his wife, Misty, to leave immediately while the 32-year-old truck driver was at work. She wasn't even allowed to collect the suitcases and duffel bags they had already packed with spare clothes, a few valuables and insurance and tax documents. Misty Thornton, 28, said she hadn't slept in two days. "We're basically losing everything we have," Jason Thornton said Thursday night outside a middle-school auditorium where officials gave residents updates on the fire - but little hope for the Thorntons. "Things we have built over 11 years, now it could all be gone in seconds." AP-CS-04-27-07 1845EDT

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