Winds slow down, give firefighters edge

Published May 17, 2007

LAKE CITY - Firefighters made progress holding a raging wildfire in check overnight into Wednesday and will try to take advantage of light winds to fortify containment lines to protect 725 evacuated homes in North Florida.

Although most of the fire was about 6 miles north of Interstate 10, flames crept toward U.S. 441, where most of the evacuations have taken place. Firefighters have been able keep the blaze away from scattered rural homes - the nearest it has gotten to the highway is about a mile.

"Overnight, we had a good night. Winds were a threat on Monday and Tuesday, but today we are just expecting variable winds 4-5 mph, " said Columbia County spokesman Harvey Campbell.

Calm winds allowed firefighters to work Wednesday on strengthening their containment lines to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby homes, said Jim Harrell, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

"There are no reports of breakout of high fire activity, " Harrell said.

Division of Forestry spokeswoman Analeasa Winter said it is still too early to allow residents to return home because of fears of high winds again Friday.

Harrell said officials believe the weather will worsen over the weekend, with strong winds and high temperatures. That could allow the blaze to spread.

Winter said crews dealt with only two small blazes, an acre and 3 acres, that jumped containment lines Wednesday and both were quickly extinguished. Overall, the blaze has charred about 186 square miles in North Florida and is 50 percent contained.

Some residents have been evacuated since last week, which is wearing on their patience and finances.

Ashsah Dees, 34, who was evacuated with her 9-year-old daughter Meagan, said they moved into a motel after shelters kept opening and closing. She also said her daughter was running out of clothes to wear to school.

"It's getting expensive, " she said.

Interstates 10 and 75 were open to traffic, but authorities warned drivers that periodic closures were possible.