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Wildfire Continues To Burn Southern Ga.

As a spreading wildfire in the Okefenokee Swamp neared her mobile home, Lynn Adams and her two grandchildren were roused at 1 a.m. Wednesday and told by sheriff's deputies to evacuate.

By sunrise, they were allowed to return home. The fire, however, continued to burn and a giant column of black smoke drifted over Adams' yard, where flakes of black ash peppered the dry, brown grass. Adams watched a helicopter swoop down on a pond behind her home to refill its dangling bucket with water to dump on the blaze.

"Goodness gracious," said Adams, 50, who lives in the tiny community of Astoria just north of the swamp. "It's a never-ending thing. Once it gets started, it's hard to stop."

Dozens of residents were forced to evacuate early Wednesday as the wildfire crossed a highway near the private, nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park and moved toward two communities south of Waycross. Ware County officials let them return home a few hours later.

The wildfire had blackened about 6,000 acres in the swamp since Tuesday evening, raising the total area burned to about 60,000 acres — or 93 square miles — of forest in southeast Georgia, said Eric Mosley, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. Officials say 18 homes have been destroyed.

No homes were destroyed in the areas evacuated Wednesday, but firefighters cautioned the blaze still threatened to spread into neighborhoods near the swamp as winds with gusts up to 15 mph fanned the fire from the southwest. Heavier winds were forecast Thursday and Friday.

"They're not out of the woods yet," said Eric Mosley, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. "There's still a possibility there could be some danger."

About 70 homes had been evacuated as a precaution early Wednesday after the fire crossed Ga. 177, a short road that ends in the swamp, and threatened the small communities of Astoria and Braganza about three miles south of Waycross.

More than 30 miles of U.S. 1 between Waycross and Folkston were closed to traffic for more than two hours before the highway was reopened.

Waycross, a city of 15,300 people, was not in immediate danger. Heavy smoke that shrouded the city overnight had largely dissipated Wednesday morning. Ware County schools reopened after being closed six days. However, smoke remained thick near the swamp about 7 miles away.

Almost as soon as they got home, families that had evacuated early Wednesday prepared to flee again if necessary.

Darryl Cribbs, 44, left spare clothes in his family's cars as he worked to fix a water line that broke when a bulldozer plowed a fire break around his home in the tiny Braganza community.

Cribbs, a plumber, said he wanted to make sure he'd have water in case the fire came closer and he needed to hose down his house. His family had spent the night with Cribbs' parents in Waycross.

"If it gets any worse, we're going to go back to momma and daddy's," Cribbs said, squinting through a haze of smoke that hung over his property. "It's not too bad, but my throat's all dry and scratchy."

Firefighters worked Wednesday to widen fire breaks plowed by bulldozers along the northern edge of the swamp in hopes of protecting nearby homes and keeping the fire from reaching U.S. 1, a major highway connecting Waycross and Jacksonville, Fla.

The fire started April 16 when a downed power line ignited dry trees in Ware County, part of a large area of southeast Georgia parched by extreme drought. Officials say the blaze has been 50 percent contained by fire breaks plowed along its perimeter.

Officials say the fire has destroyed 18 homes in the area.

Although the evacuation order was lifted for the 70 homes near the swamp, Ware County officials were still monitoring the fire closely, said county spokesman James Ginn.

"If the situation warrants, we will certainly evacuate them again," Ginn said.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for 1,000 people ordered to leave their homes last week.

Thomas Hall, a 56-year-old retired machinist, refused to leave his home in Astoria early Wednesday. Instead, he sat in a rocker on his back porch, watching the fire's orange glow through the trees behind his house. He didn't sleep at all.

After daybreak Wednesday, Hall mowed his lawn. He got his fishing boat ready to hitch to the back of his pickup truck, which held a filing cabinet filled with insurance papers and other important documents. In his recreation room, he had a grocery bag of instant noodles, his fishing rods and a framed photo collage from family fishing trips ready to go.

"I ain't panicking," Hall said. "But you use your common sense. You know when it's time to go."