ST. GEORGE, GA. | Crews battling to control the big West Mims Fire caught a break from the weather Tuesday as temperature inversion and light winds kept the fire from going on another series of runs, officials said.
With strong northwest winds behind it Monday, the fire had jumped Georgia 94 and raced south for about three miles before it finally calmed down overnight. It moved again slowly, this time to the east and toward Georgia 121, and tractor plow crews were able to do some work in front of it, said Thomas Stokesberry, a public information officer for the Southern Area Red team that is managing the fire.
By 4 p.m., the head of the fire had taken a right turn and burned about a mile and was still a mile from Georgia 121, which runs from St. George toward Macclenny, the fire maps showed.
“They’re widening breaks to help keep it from progressing east to 121,” Stokesberry said. “Right now, they’re saying the winds are favorable to catch it.”
The fire was close enough for Aaron and Tammy Johnson pack a second time and be ready to move for the second night in a row. The couple, their four children and Tammy Johnson’s mother and sister, had spent Monday night in a motel. They came back to pack another load at their house just south of St. George and prepare to go to Camden County’s shelter in Kingsland at the Camden County Recreation Center.
Aaron Johnson said Monday afternoon was frightening. “You could see a lot of black smoke. It was bad,” he said.
They will take their small dogs and cats and a kennel was coming to keep the others if they evacuated, the Johnsons said.
Perhaps as many have stayed as have left after Charlton County implemented a mandatory evacuation for all of the southern half of the county.
The work to keep the fire from the Johnsons’ and other houses was mostly on the ground.
Stokesberry said the work Tuesday was mostly on the ground because the temperature inversion trapped the smoke. The big tankers that had been dumping retardant on the fire were grounded because of poor visibility, he said.
There is a fifth air tanker ready to fight the fire, a DC-10 adapted to dump retardant. It’s called a VLAT, as in Very Large Air Tanker, and it can carry 12,000 gallons of retardant.
“If it makes a full drop, it can cover an area 300 feet wide for a mile,” Stokesberry said.
Because of the visibility, however, the plane was grounded Tuesday after only one drop, he said.
The personnel assigned to the fire is growing steadily. There were 694 Tuesday, a high for the fire since it was first reported April 6.
Things were calmer in St. George on Tuesday because unlike Monday there was no heavy column of smoke rising three miles to the west. All there was was smoke as far away as Yulee.
Frank DeHart of Jacksonville owns property in North Florida a good distance from the fire. He nonetheless checked in with Stokesberry just to be sure his property is safe for now. “I’ve got a bulldozer I could knock down a few things with it,” he said.
Examing the map again, DeHart said, “It ain’t going to get that close, I don’t guess.”
But it was a continued threat to places he likes, the timber land north of St. George where he used to hunt.
The effort to hold the fire back was obvious south of St. George along 121.
Thirteen tractor-trailers that hauled tractor plows sat empty beside Georgia 121 about four miles south of St. George. The tractors were nearly a mile west plowing a containment line that officials hoped would hold if the winds roused up the fire again.
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405