ST. MARYS — An 11-mile portion of Interstate 95 just south of the Georgia state line reopened Friday after being shut down for more than 20 hours because of heavy smoke from a wildfire.
But authorities Friday said it’s possible the interstate could be closed again if smoke from the Yellow Bluff Fire obscures vision or threatens the safety of motorists.
Authorities initially closed the interstate on both sides from State Road 200 (A1A) in Yulee to Pecan Park Road around 2:15 p.m. Thursday but extended the closure south several more exits to Interstate 295 later in the afternoon.
By late afternoon, southbound traffic had backed up on the interstate to Exit 3 in Kingsland, said Maj. Chuck Byerly, with the Camden County Sheriff’s Office.
Motorists trying to avoid the gridlock on the interstate quickly impacted U.S. 17, with traffic backed up more than a mile north of downtown Kingsland.
“It backed up bad,” Byerly said. “We had some major accidents as a result.”
Adding to the pandemonium were two serious accidents in Camden County where some of the injured had to be flown by emergency medical helicopter to regional hospitals.
One accident involved two trucks. One of the drivers was flown to a Jacksonville hospital. A separate accident involved a car driving about 70 mph ramming into the back of a truck stuck in traffic.
It was a challenge getting emergency vehicles to the scene of both accidents and an even bigger challenge finding a place for the helicopters to land with the gridlock on the interstate.
In response to the problems in Camden County, Georgia Department of Transportation officials agreed to reroute southbound traffic on the interstate in Glynn County at Exit 29. The detour took southbound motorists west on U.S. 82 toward Nahunta then south on U.S. 301 south into Florida to avoid the gridlock on the interstate.
Despite the help, Byerly said traffic was backed up in Camden County until after 4 a.m. on Friday because of the accidents. The gridlock forced the day shift to work late and the night shift to report for duty early. Byerly praised his dispatchers and deputies for dealing with one of the more chaotic days he can remember.
The fire burned more than 450 acres by lunchtime Friday and was considered about 30 percent contained, though the fire has spread into a difficult to access marsh and wetlands area that has dried out in the hot weather.
The Florida Forest Service has 13 bulldozers and one helicopter at the scene to assist local firefighters battling the blaze.
Byerly said his deputies were prepared for another tough night on Friday if the interstate gets shut down again during the state of the holiday weekend.