BRYCEVILLE, Fla. – Nassau County and Florida Forestry officials said at midday Thursday that the weather has allowed some optimism that they'll continue making progress fighting a wildfire that has consumed 393 acres, destroyed two homes, damaged six others and burned more 19 barns, sheds or other structures since Wednesday afternoon.
Owners who suffered property damage or losses were being notified Thursday. Officials couldn't say when roads in the Bryceville area would reopen or when about 150 people evacuated from the area would be allowed to return and see what happened to their property.
"Things are looking really good as far as weather, so this is giving our firefighters an opportunity to make some excellent progress," said Annaleasa Winter of the Florida Forest Service.
But she quickly added that containment remains at 65 percent, and with winds forecast to pick up Thursday afternoon, things could become more challenging.
"Crews are also staged and standing by in case we do get any wind gusts or any flare-ups, that they can very quickly respond in a matter of seconds," Winter said. "They can get a piece of heavy equipment on scene and multiple engines that can defend the home and put that fire out."
Forestry personnel were cutting a 40-50-foot fire break around the entire perimeter to keep it contained.
"There's a lot of hot concentrated heat sources out there in the rubble that's burning. There's still a lot of ash and smoke being emitted," Winter said. "So there is still a risk that a wind gust could blow the fire outside of our containment lines and take off running again and there's a lot of fuel out there to burn."
Officials were hoping to reach 70 percent containment by the end of the day.
"We're asking the public to be patient with us," Nassau County Fire Battalion Chief Mike Eddins said. "Once we get those preliminary damage assessments completed, then we'll try to make a determination of when we can let people back into their homes."
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.
Florida Forest Service aircraft couldn't fly Thursday morning due to the same overcast conditions that were helping firefighters on the ground. Winter said they hope to fly in the after to get a better assessment on the size and containment of the fire.
Eddins said some firefighters had suffered minor injuries -- one briefly hospitalized for a sprain -- but nothing significant.
Eddins said officials are expecting winds to pick up to 15 to 20 mph, with gusts up to 30 mph by mid-afternoon.
"It is a great concern for us as we move into the afternoon hours," he said. "It will hamper our ability to contain some of the fire."
He said this is 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.
Residents were ordered to evacuate as over 200 personnel from five agencies -- Nassau County Fire Rescue, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, St. Johns County Fire Rescue, the Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Forest Service -- battled the blaze while forestry bulldozers plowed fire lines.
According to Winter, one forestry tractor was overrun by flames, but the fireman operating it was able to jump clear. He was shaken up but not injured.
Roads in the area remained closed at County Road 121 and Kinard Road, CR 121 and Stokes Road, County Road 121 at U.S. 90 and County Road 119 at David Hunt Road. Nassau County officials said the primary emergency shelter at Bryceville Baptist Church, 7732 U.S. Highway 301, which hosted 18 people Wednesday night and will remain open as long as needed.
"There's still a lot of hot ash and ember and a lot of danger out there, and it's not a safe place to be. So if people are still out there, they need to leave," Winter said.
Residents are urged to avoid the area until county personnel can assess the damage to infrastructure, including downed electrical lines and burned power poles that will take some time to repair.
PHOTOS: Wildfire burns in Nassau County
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."
As the fire began to spread, 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 wind were significant factors in the fire rapidly spreading from 5 acres to 350-400 acres -- about a half-mile wide by 2 miles long.
"We knew that this was going to be a windy day," Channel 4 meteorologist John Gaughan said. "This fire took off and took off quickly. It's blowing to the west and south."
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.
"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 hadn't," Allen said. "I hope everybody down there is alright."
Eddins said it was 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, water and provide support for their tight-knit community.
The Florida Forest Service said crews will continue to work overnight, and evacuations remain in place.
"There's still a lot of work left to be done," Winter said.
Nassau County Emergency Management said residents will not be able to return to their homes until the fire is completely contained. Officials said Wednesday that they will reassess the situation Thursday morning.
A hotline has been set up for people to get information on shelters and other needs. The number to call is 904-548-0900.
Shelters open for residents, animals
As crews battled the wildfire, several organizations opened shelters for Nassau County residents who had to evacuate. All but one shelter closed by Thursday morning.
The Northeast Florida American Red Cross said 14 people spent the night at an official shelter for displaced residents at Bryceville Baptist. The church can hold about 80 people. The number for the church is 904-266-4169.
MORE DETAILS: Shelters, other information for people fleeing fire
Callahan First Baptist at 45090 Green Avenue is on standby to open as a shelter for people in need.
Diamond D. Ranch at 5903-1 Solomon Road and Walker Quarter Horse Farm at 14452 Normandy Blvd. have also offered to shelter horses and livestock that were evacuated.
Anyone who would like to bring animals to Diamond D. Ranch can call 904-591-3289 overnight until 8 a.m. The other number to call is 904-289-9331, but that line won't be open until 8 a.m.
Country Affair Arabians in Keystone Heights, about an hour south of Bryceville, said it will shelter horses for those who need to evacuate. The number to contact is 352-478-1857.
Alicia Padgett, who lives in Bryceville, said her ranch can shelter horses affected by the fire. Her number is 904-266-0040.
Suzanne Finnegan, who lives in Middleburg, also offered to take in horses at her small farm. She said there are no stalls but the pasture can accommodate 4 to 5 horses. She said her land can also accommodate a couple campers if evacuees want to stay with their horses. She asks that evacuees bring their own feed and hay, if possible. Her number is 904-254-4491.
Jessica Vinson also offered to shelter animals in her 20-foot stock trailer. Anyone wishing to contact her can call 505-6836.
Three Oaks Farm in Brunswick, Georgia, has offered its pastures and stalls for anyone who had to evacuate their horses. For more information, visit threeoaksfarm.org or call 912-269-0623.
All Paws Pet Boarding and Day Care at 8356 U.S. Highway 301 in Bryceville said everyone was safe at the kennel, and an evacuation plan is in place, if need be. Anyone seeking information can call 904-266-0010.
The Nassau Humane Society will be accepting donations, including dog and cat food, beginning at 9 a.m. Thursday at the shelter located at 639 Airport Road in Fernandina Beach. The donations will be delivered to shelters, and any monetary donations will be given to the local Red Cross.
For more information about shelters, call the hotline at 904-548-0900.