People will probably see smoke until September

People will probably see smoke untilSeptember’

2 June 2007

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USA — A wildfire stretching from Waycrossto LakeCity, Fla.,has surpassed the 600,000-acre milestone and is still growing.

The question is: How much bigger will it get?

StewartTurner, a fire behavior analyst, said it’s impossible to predict how muchmore acreage will burn or which areas will see most of the new activity. The onecertainty is the fire will continue to consume more trees and threatencommunities for weeks or even months, he said.

“There are islands (of unburned land) completely surrounded byfire,” he said. “People are going to see smoke out there for a longtime. People will probably see smoke until September.”

There’s also the ongoing threat the fire could break out of the existingcontainment lines and spread farther.

“Normally, we don’t see fires running like this in this area,” hesaid. “A fire of this magnitude happens every 30 to 50 years.”

While the region is experiencing near-record drought conditions, there areother factors that could affect how much more will burn.

Historically, the prevailing winds blow from the southwest this time of year,Turnersaid, which means communities on the eastern boundary of the fire such as Waycross,Folkstonand St. George should be seeing most of the activity.

Instead, winds have been blowing from the east, meaning the Fargoarea and other areas on the western side of the fire are threatened areas – andthe ones with the most smoke.

The wind direction is giving firefighters the chance to conduct burnouts onthe east side of the fire so when the wind changes there won’t be any fuel toburn, Turnersaid.

There’s also a lot of potential for areas to re-burn because of fallenneedles on the ground and a rapidly drying layer of peat up to 15 feet thick inswamp areas.

“Peat fires tend to burn a long time,” Turner said. “It’s avery nasty smoke and it takes a lot of rain to put it (a peat fire) out.”

The fires have burned more than 316,000 acres inside the 401,000-acre OkefenokeeNational Wildlife Refuge, but JimBurkhart, a refuge ranger, said there are “huge expanses that haven’tstarted burning yet.”

There also are areas that have re-burned inside the swamp that could burn athird time once conditions are dry enough, he said.

“When you get done with the surface fuel, you’ve got more underneath andthat’s peat.”

Despite the extensive number of acres that have burned in the wildlife refuge,Burkhartsaid the only structural damage is two overnight camping shelters that will haveto be rebuilt.

Recently, there has been a lot of fire activity near Chesser Island, the siteof a historic homestead, a boardwalk and a wooden observation tower, but none ofthose structures currently are threatened, Burkhartsaid.

Fire officials have conducted controlled burns near Chesser Island to protectthe structures if winds change directions.

“I’m feeling very confident the fire won’t get in there,” he said.

Turnerpredicted firefighters will be able to strengthen the perimeter of the fire incoming weeks to stop it from spreading farther, but stopping the fires fromburning inside the contained area is a different story.

“It’ll be a long season for the folks out here,” he said. “Thisis a topography-altering fire.”

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