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Fla. crews near breaking point in wildfires fight

By Alan Gomez, USA TODAY

As wildfires rage in all corners of the state, Florida officials are hoping that a weekend storm front will bring some much-needed rain to help quell the widespread burning.

As of late Thursday, 236 fires were burning more than 87,000 acres around the state, according to the state Division of Forestry. Three firefighters sustained minor injuries Thursday. Six homes have been destroyed, and an additional 13 have been damaged.

The fires are so spread out — 12 Florida counties have at least 500 acres burning — that the roughly 1,200 emergency responders may be reaching their breaking point.

"It's on the verge of taxing our ability to keep up with it," division spokesman Jim Harrell said.

Harrell said the state has put out a call to neighboring states for assistance — a team from Kentucky is expected to arrive in Florida on Monday — but many are struggling with their own wildfires.

Georgia is battling two wildfires that have each burned more than 100,000 acres.

Both are in the southeastern part of the state, threatening the town of Fargo and a 300-home development in Charlton County late Thursday.

A wildfire in Baker County, Fla., which started when Georgia's fire jumped the St. Mary's River, kept residents of the tiny community of Taylor away from their homes for a third day.

Nearly 20,000 acres of the county had burned as of Thursday.

In Lee County, north of Fort Myers, about 600 residents of a mobile home park were forced from their homes for several hours after a fire sprouted and quickly grew to 20 acres Thursday morning.

Freeman Dowling, 77, a Baker County Red Cross volunteer, said about 250 people were evacuated from their homes.

"With this wind blowing at 30 mph, I know they're having a time of it trying to get it under control," he said.

Officials tightened water-use restrictions for South Florida residents and golf courses in an effort to offset unprecedented drought conditions.

The moves follow a similar decision last month to try to halve agricultural water use there.

The fires even affected counties that weren't ablaze, as heavy smoke drifted over most counties in the state.

All outdoor activities for Broward County's 260,000 students were canceled through Wednesday. Outdoor activities resumed Thursday, but school officials said students with respiratory ailments were encouraged to stay indoors.

"It looked foggy," school district spokesman Andrew Feirstein said.

Gov. Charlie Crist had expressed hope that Florida would receive help from Subtropical Depression Andrea. The system was very dry, however. It dropped at most 0.57 inches of rain in Woodbine, Ga., according to the National Weather Service.

Melissa Hurlbut, a meteorologist with the weather service's Jacksonville office, said a storm front expected to move into the state Sunday will bring a 50% chance of rain. Until then, the state will remain dangerously dry.

"I think it's going to be several days, probably a week," Crist said Thursday morning on the CBS' The Early Show.

In northern Minnesota, high winds fanned a fire around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That fire has destroyed about 45 structures and has burned its way into Canada.

In California, a 500-acre wildfire erupted on the getaway spot of Santa Catalina Island on Thursday, forcing evacuations just as firefighters extinguished the few remaining hot spots of a fire in Los Angeles' Griffith Park.

Contributing: Andrea Stone and the Associated Press

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