Florida Forestry officials said Friday that the 700-acre fire that forced 150 residents from their homes in western Nassau County is 75 percent contained Friday. Forestry officials said there is a 20-acre patch of unburned fuel inside the fire line west of County Road 121 and Cortez that is still causing concern and urged residents returning to the area to call 911 if they see any flair-ups.
The evacuation order that forced residents from their homes overnight was lifted Thursday afternoon as state and local crews continued to battle the wildfire that destroyed two homes, damaged eight others and burned 19 barns, sheds or other structures.
Neighbors told fire officials Friday morning that they saw glowing embers overnight.
Nassau County and Florida Forestry officials said County Road 121 had reopened, but County Road 119 would remain closed as firefighting and recovery efforts continued.
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While two homes were destroyed and eight others were damaged, most residents returned to find their homes intact.
“The main thing is your family, we have some small dogs and stuff like that and of course we loaded them up and took them with us. Property can be rebuilt. You can buy material things but it’s the things you can’t replace,” said resident Eric Yates.
Florida Forest Service employees continued cutting a 40- to 50-foot perimeter around the two-mile and half-mile area that burned, putting out hot spots and wetting down the immediate area around all remaining structures.
“The spread is contained at this point, and they’re improving those (fire) lines,” said Annaleasa Winter of the Florida Forest Service. “There’s still a chance that one of those embers could get away from us. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Winters said containment remained at 65 percent as of early Thursday evening, but that firefighters were hoping to reach 100 percent by the end of the weekend. Officials said that overcast skies, higher humidity and winds that did gust as strongly as forecast Thursday all worked to the advantage of firefighters.
There were two spot-over fires that broke out Thursday, but they were knocked down quickly, Winter said.
Several engineers and seven to eight bulldozers will be on standby Thursday night for spot-overs.
The emergency shelter at Bryceville First Baptist Church will remain open while people return to their property to determine if the homes can be occupied. Nassau County Emergency Management officials said that even when residents return, firefighters will be involved in mop-up operations, and utility workers will be working in the area for the next few days.
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Nearly 200 first responders from at least seven six agencies — firefighters from Nassau County, Clay and St. Johns counties, Jacksonville police and firefighters, the Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Forest Service — spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning battling the blaze.
Nassau County Fire Battalion Chief Mike Eddins said some firefighters had suffered minor injuries — one briefly hospitalized for a sprain — but nothing significant.
Firefighters trying to save one home had to take cover when ammunition stored inside was set off.
“It was partially engulfed at that time,” Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Dylan Bryan said. “Ammunition and bullets started to fire due to the intense heat, which created a serious hazard for first responders in the area and other residents in the area.”
Despite losing some property, Eddins said more than 100 structures in the evacuation were saved in the largest and most destructive wildfire the county has seen since 1998.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had this severe and this intense of a wildfire moving that quickly through the area,” Winter said.
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Forestry officials said the fire was started about 2 p.m. by a man who was burning paperback books on Wills Lane near Garfield Road, where some of the homes were lost, officials said. According to a woman’s 911 call, they were burning boxes after recently moving into the home.
Winter said that family was cited for violating a state statute banning burning of household waste, and they will receive a “hefty” bill for the cost of fighting the fire. They could also be fined and be sued by homeowners for the loss of their homes and property.
“This was not malicious intent,” Winter said. “They feel absolutely devastated; very remorseful,”
“I don’t think hating that person is going to help anything. He thought he could burn some stuff, and it got out of hand,” said Jessica Fouraker, who was forced to evacuate her home near DB Hicks Road. “The best I can do is to pray for him and his family and the journey they have from there.”
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As the fire began to spread Thursday afternoon, officials shut down County Road 121 from DB Hicks Road to Wills Lane. Drivers were urged to avoid the area as first responders attempted to contain the fire.
Lines placed around the fire off Wills Lane and Country Road 121 seemed to be helping fire crews get it under control. But the fire continued to move southeast in the county, and first responders from counties throughout Northeast Florida — including Duval, Clay and St. Johns — were called to help Nassau County firefighters protect homes.
Nassau County Emergency Management Director Billy Estep described the forest fire as a “tragedy,” stressing that the changing weather conditions and winds were significant factors in the fire rapidly spreading from five acres to nearly seven hundred acres — an area about a half-mile wide by two miles long.
Just before 5 p.m., residents in the vicinity of County Road 121 and County Road 119 by Dewey’s Place were ordered to evacuate. About an hour later, Nassau County Emergency Management said winds had driven the wildfire toward Countryside Acres, and residents in that area were also told to evacuate immediately.
A man who lives in a home on County Road 119 said that within two minutes of getting home from work, firefighters pulled up and told the family to get out before the flames destroyed their house.
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“By the time we were pulling stuff out of the house into the trucks, the fire was already taking out (the) gazebo, taking out the pool deck. It was already in the backyard,” evacuee Randy Hoke said. “They’re not going to get this under control tonight.”
Nassau County resident James Allen told News4Jax that his friend’s home may have been lost in the wildfire.
“We believe his place may have burnt down there. I pray to the Lord that it hasn’t,” Allen said. “I hope everybody down there is alright.”
Eddins said it was a blessing that Nassau County schools are on spring break and many residents were already out of the area.
Despite being evacuated from their homes, several Nassau County residents jumped in to help first responders, bringing snacks and water to provide support for their tight-knit community.
Nassau County set up a hotline for people to get information on shelters and other needs. The number to call is 904-548-0900.