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Progress being made on wildfires

Containment expected Friday in New Jersey and on Sunday in Minnesota.

BY P.J. HELLER | BARNAGET, N.J. | May 17, 2007

Firefighters battling three major blazes across the U.S. reported progress Thursday. Containment was expected within days on two of the fires.

In New Jersey, a wildfire on the border of Ocean and Burlington counties was expected to be fully contained Friday.

"We're in really good shape," reported Bert Plante, division fire warden with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. "It's definitely calmed down."

By Thursday afternoon, the fire was 70 percent contained and some 6,000 people who were forced to evacuate from 2,500 homes were allowed to return.

Firefighters were aided by about one-half inch of rain that fell Wednesday night. More rain was forecast.

The fire destroyed five mobile homes, seriously damaged 13 others and caused some damage to 50 more, Plante said. All of the mobile homes were in retirement communities.

Some 60 firefighters remained on fire lines Thursday, down from more than 600 who initially fought the blaze.

The cause of the fire, which began Tuesday afternoon on the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, was under investigation. Early reports suggested it was started by a flare dropped from a New Jersey Air National Guard F-16 that was on a practice bombing run over the weapons range. The Air Force has launched two investigations into the fire.

Wildfires in southeast Georgia and northern Florida continued burning, but officials there also reported making inroads. Weather also continued to play a major factor.

"We're all praying for rain," said Marlette Lacey, a spokesman for the Joint Information Center. "If we get enough rain, it would help us."

The forecast called for a 40 percent chance of rain but firefighters were concerned that lightning accompanying the storms could spark more fires and that shifting winds might spread the fire. Some rain fell Thursday morning but it was not enough to make a difference, Lacey said.

The largest of the fires, the Bugaboo blaze, had charred more than 260,000 acres 406 square miles - in Florida and Georgia. The fire was 65 percent contained in Florida and 30 percent contained in Georgia. It has been burning since May 5 and was sparked by a lightning strike in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

"Conditions are looking good this afternoon," officials said of the Florida part of the fire.

The Sweat Road/Big Turnout blaze in Ware and Charlton counties in Georgia had burned more than 157,000 acres. The Sweat Road portion of the blaze was 82 percent contained; Big Turnout was 45 percent contained. The fire began April 16 when a tree fell on a power line.

Mandatory evacuations remained in place for portions of Columbia County in Florida affecting about 750 homes and were expected to continue on Friday.

Since the fire moved into Columbia County, The Salvation Army has served up more than 2,000 meals from its mobile kitchen. It served 250 meals on Thursday to firefighters and other responders.

The organization also has served meals in other areas affected by wildfires, including Bay, Alachua, Baker, Volusia, Bradford, Lake, Flagler, Collier, Gulf and Lee counties.

Individuals, businesses and faith-based organizations, including the Pine Grove Baptist Church in Lake City, also donated water, beverages and other basic necessities to firefighters.

The Pine Grove Baptist Church planned to open its church to firefighters on Friday to allow them to cook meals for about 600 of their colleagues, said Pastor James Roberts. Some church members planned to help out, he said.

"A large portion of our Southern Baptist churches in the area have responded well as far as basic needs that we have been apprised of," Roberts said.

Those needs have primarily been beverages for the firefighters but have also included such things as clothing and other necessities. Some church members even brought breakfast out to the firefighters, he said.

Precautionary evacuations were advised in the Georgia towns of Moniac, Reeves Landing and a portion of Charlton County west of Highway 121 from Folkson to the wildlife refuge.

Portions of Interstate 75 in Georgia and Interstates 75, 10 and 95 in Florida were subject to frequent closures due to dense smoke. Several other roads in the area, including U.S. 441, remained closed.

Smoke from the fires was reported as far north as North Carolina.

Georgia officials reported 22 active wildfires statewide covering 300,377 acres. In Florida, 192 wildfires were burning over 186,297 acres, officials said.

In Minnesota, meantime, containment of the Ham Lake fire was expected Sunday as cool damp conditions helped firefighters. The fire, burning in northeast Minnesota and which spread across the border into western Ontario, had burned more than 75,000 acres, of which more than 36,000 acres were on the U.S. side.

Residents who had been evacuated from their homes along a portion of the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota were allowed back temporarily Thursday afternoon. Residents along another section of the trail were allowed back one day earlier.

Officials said the fire was 65 percent contained in the U.S. and 35 percent contained in Canada. The fire began May 5.

Latest estimates said more than 140 structures had been destroyed in the U.S and Canada.

Elsewhere, a wildfire in north-central Arizona forced about 50 people from their homes in See Canyon and Mountain Meadows. The Promontory fire about 20 miles from Payson was about 15 percent contained and had burned about 1,500 acres. Full containment was not expected until Tuesday.


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