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Wildfires Force Georgia Evacuations

Wildfires flared up in drought-stricken southeast Georgia, destroying several buildings and forcing hundreds of fire-weary residents to leave their homes.

Deputies on Thursday visited about 100 homes in and near Astoria, a tiny community three miles southeast of Waycross, asking people to leave as a wildfire in the Okefenokee Swamp approached.

"This is the largest fire we've had in Georgia on record," Susan Reisch of the Georgia Forestry Commission told CBS News.

Most of the evacuees had just returned home after leaving for several hours Wednesday. In the past 11 days, fires have blackened 95 square miles — or about 61,100 acres — of parched forest and swamp. Officials said 18 homes were destroyed.

Only 3 of the 18 homes had proper insurance, reports Ali Gorman of CBS affiliate WTEV in Jacksonville, Fla.

"My nerves just can't take it anymore," said Mary Howell, 51, as she packed stacks of framed family photos in the trunk of her Lincoln Towncar for the second time in two days. "I haven't slept in a week since this stuff started."

A fire outside Nahunta that firefighters contained last week began raging again Thursday, spreading about four miles along U.S. Highway 301, 911 dispatcher Elaine Wilson said.

Twenty-five to 30 homes were evacuated and three unoccupied buildings were destroyed, said Jerry Rohnert of the Bureau of Land Management.

Emergency officials closed 16 miles of U.S. Highway 1 and railroad tracks running alongside near the Okefenokee Swamp.

The weather isn't helping, said Reisch.

"We haven't had much rain. We're in a drought deficit, and the fields are very dry," she said. "In addition, yesterday and today the winds are going to be picking up, and that's causing the fires to spot in other places."

"Places like Savannah have only gotten about 0.3 of an inch of rain this April, when the normal is 2.6 inches, and there's a high fire danger throughout that region," says CBS News meteorologist George Cullen.

The wind blew hot embers from the swamp across the highway, igniting small spot fires near the Georgia Forestry Commission district office that fire officials had been using as a command center.

Firefighters contained the small fires quickly, but the command center had to be evacuated, said Eric Mosley, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Meanwhile, firefighters used bulldozers to widen fire breaks plowed along both sides of U.S. 1, while airplanes sprayed fire-retardant foam to try to halt the blaze's advance.

About 1,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes near Waycross last week, and most have not been allowed to return. An additional 5,000 people were urged to voluntarily evacuate because of health risks posed by heavy smoke.