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Massive Wildfire Forces Evacuation of Hundreds of Home in Florida

No lives have been lost as yet. But the massive wildfire along the Georgia-Florida border is burning thousands of acres and destroying smaller structures. There is no sign of its dying down.

Between 250 and 500 homes west of U.S. 441 had to be evacuated for a second time when the fire line was breached, Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Michael Burroughs said. An additional 570 people who were ordered out of homes east of the roadway were still waiting to return.

The wildfire had raced through the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia and into northern Florida after being started by lightning more than a week ago. By Tuesday, it had burned 109,000 acres in Florida and 139,813 acres of swampland in Georgia nearly 390 square miles in all.

Flames jumped a containment line at the fire's western edge, but firefighters used bulldozers and water-dropping helicopters to extinguish them, said John Speaks, deputy incident commander with the forest service. The fire was about 1 1/2 miles from U.S. 441.

In Florida, the blaze was 50 percent contained Tuesday. The smoke had lifted enough to open Interstates 10 and 75 to traffic, but drivers were warned that periodic closures were still possible.

Another large wildfire, in northeastern Minnesota and Ontario, could be brought under control by the end of the week, officials said. No one has been seriously hurt in the fire, which has burned 117 square miles of Minnesota and Canada, but many cabins and smaller structures more than 100 in all have been destroyed.

Florida has undergone an explosion in population a growth of about 13 percent between 2000 and 2006. This has meant that more and more people are pushing into rural areas. In dry weather conditions, such regions can be rife with dry, crackling brush ideal kindling for a wildfire sparked by a bolt of lightning, discarded cigarette butt, or another trigger.

In years past, foresters worked hard to clear this brush with controlled burns. Now, however, with more homes in these areas, the options for intentional burns are more limited.

"We call that the wild land/urban interface problem where wild lands meet the homes," says Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, an organization based in Boise, Idaho, that coordinates government agencies and allocates resources for various regions. "Not only does that impact where we can do prescribed fires and thinning, but it also impacts our fire costs. If we have to protect communities and homes, that is increasingly expensive."

One reason for the burst of wildfires: a persistent drought this spring.

To mitigate the risks posed by wildfires, residents should clear property of brush, dead trees, and especially unkempt foliage growing close to their homes, says Jim Harrell, spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

"Conditions and the wildfires are much more dangerous each year," says Mr. Harrell, who confirms that some controlled burns are being prevented by housing developments going farther into wooded areas. "You don't have low fires. You have tremendous wildfires."

Such fires are also flaring up in Georgia, where dry pine needles blanket forest floors, says Warren Bielenberg, spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. This week, the largest fire there was in Ware and Charlton counties, where more than 107,000 acres have burned, says Mr. Bielenberg. The fire started April 16 when a tree fell on a power line. Stoked by winds, it has destroyed 24 buildings, including 18 residences.


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