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Fire continues to spread in Georgia wildlife refuge

In this Saturday, May 6, 2017 photo provided by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge smoke rises from a wildfire east of Fargo, Ga. Firefighters were battling Sunday to prevent the fire from spreading, authorities said. (Ben Palm/Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge via AP)

FOLKSTON, Ga. (AP) — Firefighters were battling Sunday to prevent a fire in a southern Georgia wildlife refuge from spreading, authorities said.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge said in a statement that “extremely dangerous burning conditions persist” and that 11,000 acres (4,450 hectares) have been consumed by fire in the past two days. The unincorporated community of St. George is under a mandatory evacuation order and Charlton County schools have been closed for Monday. Wind gusts and dry conditions were raising the risk of the fire spreading.

The fire in total has burned 129,856 acres (52,550 hectares), and wind gusts and dry conditions were raising the risk of the fire spreading, the statement said.

Some 535 personnel had been assigned to fight the fire, along with 10 helicopters, 55 wildland fire engines, bulldozers and other equipment, the statement said. The fire is 12 percent contained.

The area, on the Georgia-Florida line, is also under a dense smoke advisory that is expected to impact visibility in the towns of St. George, Callahan, Ratliff and northern Duval County near the Jacksonville International airport. Some road closures were in effect and the main entrance to the refuge was closed.

A temporary shelter has been opened in the gymnasium at the Folkston Elementary School. County Administrator Shawn Boatright said it will stay open indefinitely.

“We’re not sure what’s going to happen right now, so it’s open until further notice,” he said.

He encouraged residents to bring whatever personal items they might need for an extended shelter stay.

The wildfire was sparked by lightning April 6 and has since burned almost entirely within the Okefenokee refuge boundaries – and some public forest land in north Florida – for the past month. However, fire spread to private land around the refuge Friday, burning an estimated 1,000 acres (405 hectares).

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