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'Monster' wildfire forces evacuations in Ga.

WAYCROSS, Ga. (AP) — A fast-moving "monster" fire in southeastern Georgia has blackened 10,000 acres of forest, destroyed a mobile home and was threatening the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refugee, a haven for alligators, bears and wading birds, officials said Tuesday.

The fire started Monday when a tree fell on a power line near Waycross.

Pushed by the winds, it forced more than 70 families from their homes and raced through drought-parched forests into the northwest corner of the Okefenokee, one of the nation's oldest and best preserved wetland areas, officials said.

THE WEATHER GUYS: Where there's smoke, there's fire

"It was jumping county roads and highways," said Neal Edmondson, a fire official with the Georgia Forestry Commission. "It was just a monster."

As a precaution, firefighters ordered the evacuation of the Okefenokee Swamp Park, a private park east of Waycross that attracts thousands of visitors each year. Bears, reptiles and other animals in the park's zoo were also being moved to safety, Edmondson said.

The large fire is one of five burning in southeastern Georgia, which was pounded by high winds as a weekend storm blitzed the East Coast. Some areas got heavy rain, but southeastern Georgia got no relief from severe drought conditions that have persisted all year.

Jim Burkhart, a ranger in the wildlife refuge, said the fire was burning in a 438,000-acre area designated as the Okefenokee Swamp, but still was a few miles from the actual refuge, which occupies 403,000 acres.

"We're always concerned," Burkhart said. "When you've got fire three or four miles from your property line, you're bound to be concerned. We're monitoring the winds. We have a helicopter monitoring the path of it. We don't need one going on in here right now."

The swamp is vulnerable now because of low water levels, a low relative humidity and gusting winds, he said.

Ware County Fire Chief Jimmy Brown said no injuries have been reported, except for a county firefighter who sprained a finger while fighting the blaze that broke out Monday afternoon.

The fires threatened residences in the area, and 70 families spent the night at a shelter at Waycross Middle School, while other people stayed with relatives, Brown said.

The fire has burned a path 3/4 of a mile wide and nine miles long, Brown said.

The chief said the fire started when a tree fell on a power line between Ga. 122 and U.S. 84, also known as the Valdosta Highway, igniting sparks that spread into the nearby woods by wind gusts of up to 39 mph.

In Brantley County, one of two fires still burning threatened Nahunta Monday night, causing a number of homes to be evacuated. Frank Sorrells of the Georgia Forestry Service said the fire that started in the Kneeknocker Swamp moved close to the homes. He said the fire has burned about 2,000 acres.

Georgia Forestry ranger Nickie Jordan said the other Brantley County fire that began Thursday in the Fort Mudge Road area has burned 864 acres. Two more fires in the area are not considered threats at this time, Edmondson said.

(Original Len: 3650 Condensed Len: 3602)

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