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Strong wind fans massive wildfire along Georgia-Florida line

LAKE CITY, Fla. - Strong winds were complicating firefighters' efforts to contain a gigantic wildfire along the Georgia-Florida line Monday, and officials said more north Florida residents may need to be evacuated.

Wind in the fire zone Monday were 15 mph with gusts up to 25 mph. Scattered showers and thunderstorms were expected later in the day, but the help from the rain could be offset by lightning sparking new blazes.

''It's a volatile fire,'' said Lt. Mike Burroughs of the Florida Highway Patrol

Firefighters were working Monday to try to keep the blaze from spreading past U.S. 441 north of Lake City and south to Interstate 10.

The highway patrol and the Columbia County Sheriff's Office were working Monday to re-evacuate about 250 to 500 homes. Residents were allowed to return home to pick up papers and care for pets, but many decided to stay, Burroughs said.

Jim Harrell, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry, said helicopters with buckets were being used Monday to help prevent the fire from making a run.

''Everything is pretty much stabilized,'' Harrell said.

Over the weekend, fire crews worked to build containment lines by plowing and back burning areas in hopes of stopping the wildfire and keeping it away from homes.

Firefighters have staged crews on the perimeter of the fire to keep it from breaking past the fire breaks.

The wildfire that raced through the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia and into northern Florida was started by lightning more than a week ago. By Monday, it had burned 102,500 acres in Florida and 139,813 acres of swampland in Georgia - nearly 380 square miles in all.

In Florida, the blaze was 30 percent contained Monday morning, and the smoke was beginning to lift enough for firefighting aircraft to take off after being grounded all weekend because of low visibility.

Helping firefighters out with about 800 hot meals a day is a Salvation Army unit from Panama City.

''The service that the Army and Red Cross provide in these types of events is really essential. These people (firefighters and emergency workers) are doing wonderful work securing and protecting our communities,'' said Capt. David Worthy of the Salvation Army

Both Interstates 10 and 75 in north Florida and Alligator Alley, also I-75, in South Florida were open Monday, but Burroughs said roads could again close because of heavy smoke.

About 15 to 20 homes north of the tiny city of Fargo, Ga., remained evacuated. Fargo residents were being told pack valuables and necessities in case they have to leave, and to clear pine straw and place sprinklers atop their homes, officials said.

The fire burning in southeast Georgia and north Florida started May 5 in the middle of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It took just six days to grow larger than another wildfire that has burned about 130,400 acres of Georgia forest and swampland over more than three weeks. The smaller fire was started by a tree falling on a power line.

In Bay County, in the Florida Panhandle, a new 320-acre fire was burning Monday, but firefighters had it 60 percent contained, Harrell said.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Georgia's Steven C. Foster State Park inside it remained closed.

In northern Georgia, about 924 acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest have burned since Sunday in Gilmer County, blackening pines, oaks, hickory and rhododendron, said Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Karen McKenzie.

Since the first of the year, Florida firefighters have battled 2,305 wildfires, which have scorched 321,699 acres or 502 square miles.

Six homes have been destroyed, three in Collier County and three in Walton County. Three firefighters have received minor injuries, but there have been no fatalities.