WAYCROSS, Ga. - Dozens of residents evacuated their homes for several hours early Wednesday after a wildfire jumped a road and spread toward two small communities.

"It looked like it was snowing with all the ash falling. You could feel the heat," said Darryl Cribbs, 44, who packed up his family in Braganza after sheriff's deputies came to their door around 1 a.m. "They said as soon as we left they were going to bring in tanker trucks and try to save the house."

The wildfire spread rapidly Tuesday night and early Wednesday near the Okefenokee Swamp Park, fueled by dense and dry trees and brush.

A 35-mile stretch of U.S. 1 was briefly closed to traffic but reopened when the danger passed, said Tracy Smith, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Over the past nine days, wildfires have burned about 67 square miles of forest parched by drought in southeast Georgia and destroyed 18 homes.

More than 1,000 Ware County residents have been forced to evacuate, and 5,000 others have been urged to leave because of health risks associated with the smoke.

A top concern Wednesday morning was a blaze that crossed state Route 177 and was threatening Braganza and Astoria, Smith said. Waycross, a city of about 15,300 resident three miles to the north, was not in immediate danger, though thick smoke blanketed the city, she said.

Firefighters tried to slow the wildfire by igniting underbrush ahead of it.

At a Red Cross shelter in Waycross, Curtis Cowart said his family had been warned twice last week that they might have to evacuate. They had already unpacked valuables they planned to take with them by the time they were told to flee on Wednesday.

"I wasn't going to leave, but I looked and saw the flames and the smoke, and it looked like it was getting closer" said Cowart, 61, whose property near Astoria backs onto the swamp. "If it comes through those woods, I don't know if they can stop it."

About a dozen area residents gathered Tuesday and nervously watched the orange glow from the fire behind the trees.

"I wasn't scared last week, but this is scary," said Kelli Lee, 33, who said she has kept valuables packed for the past week in case she has to evacuate. "I know I won't sleep tonight, that's for sure."

The fire started April 16 when a downed power line ignited tinder-dry trees in Ware County. Officials said Tuesday the blaze was 50 percent contained by fire breaks plowed along its perimeter.

But winds have kept shifting direction over the past week, threatening to cause pockets of smoldering embers to flare back to life.