The massive wildfire in Ware County that firefighters were beginning to contain has changed direction and is now moving through a heavily forested area. The blaze which has been burning for more than a week, continues to pour smoke into the neighboring communities and threaten homes and wildlife.
Early this morning, officials closed almost 30 miles of US 1 between Waycross and Folkston as the fire continued to rapidly stretch across the Okefenokee Swamp, crossing Highway 177 toward Astoria.
Seventy homes were evacuated, but firefighters were hoping to use US 1 as a barrier to keep the flames from spreading farther. As of this afternoon, that portion of US 1 is open to traffic.
So far, the fire has burned more than 53,000 acres. Tuesday night, firefighters intentionally set a back fire to some underbrush ahead of the wildfire flames, in hopes the two would compete for fuel and burn each other out. The procedure was fairly successful and it reduced the risk of flying sparks that could further spread the fire.
Though heavy smoke still looms in the air, fire officials say the City of Waycross is not in immediate danger. Ware County schools have also been closed for a week due to the wildfire, but classes resumed today.
Georgia insurance and safety fire commissioner John Oxendine says the new area the fire is burning through is all forest. While it doesn't appear to be burning toward any communities at the moment, the fire has gained momentum because of the lush and dry landscape it is now spreading into.
"Fire retardant was being dropped on the area, but that doesn't cover the peat," Oxendine told us in a telephone interview. Peat is the decaying underbrush of a heavily wooded area. According to Oxendine, "peat is nothing but fuel."
Fires were burning through the fire retardant because it wasn't sufficiently covering the peat. Now, firefighters have begun to drop water on the area from helicopters, hoping the water will put out existing flames and keep new ones from spreading through the peat. If the peat is wet, Oxendine told us, fire will not be able to spread through it.
Firefighters from other counties who had been helping with blaze were sent home earlier this week, but when the wind drastically changed the fire's direction, they were all called back last night.
Oxendine is in Waycross today to talk with firefighters about the problems and progress with the wildfire. "This is not just a Ware County fire, this is a statewide fire," said Oxendine. "I'm going to be congratulating firefighters on their hard work."
He is also in Waycross to deal with insurance claim issues for those whose homes and businesses have been affected by the fire. While some claims, like a home being completely destroyed by fire, are black and white, others are not so clear cut. "If your house or business suffered smoke damage and the fire was not within 1,000 feet, then it's a complicated claim," Oxendine said.
Business interruption claims due to the wildfire is another complicated issue, says Oxendine. According to him, there is a 72-hour waiting period for filed claims and claims are contingent upon the nature of the interruption. A forced evacuation does result in a business interruption, but a road closure depends on the nature of the cause.
If you have insurance claim questions or issues, you can contact the Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner's office at 800.656.2298 or visit their website at http://www.inscomm.state.ga.us/home.aspx.