Source AP ©

Wildfire in Georgia: evacuations and highway shutdown

A wildfire spread toward two small communities in the southern state of Georgia. Dozens of residents evacuated their homes for several hours early Wednesday.

"It looked like it was snowing with all the ash falling. You could feel the heat," said Darryl Cribbs, 44, who packed up his family after sheriff's deputies came to their door in the early morning. "They said as soon as we left they were going to bring in tanker trucks and try to save the house."

The wildfire, that started April 16 when a downed power line ignited tinder-dry trees, spread rapidly Tuesday night and early Wednesday near the Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Over the past nine days, wildfires have burned about 67 square miles (173.5 sq. kilometers) of forest parched by drought in southeast Georgia and destroyed 18 homes.

More than 1,000 residents have been forced to evacuate, and 5,000 others have been urged to leave because of health risks associated with the smoke.

A top concern Wednesday morning was a blaze that crossed a road and was threatening the small communities of Braganza and Astoria, said Tracy Smith, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Waycross, a city of about 15,300 residents three miles (4.8 kilometers) to the north, was not in immediate danger, though thick smoke blanketed the city, she said.

Officials said Tuesday the blaze was 50 percent contained by fire breaks plowed along its perimeter.

Firefighters tried to slow the wildfire by igniting underbrush ahead of it.

But winds have kept shifting direction over the past week, threatening to cause pockets of smoldering embers to flare back to life.

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