KINGSLAND, Ga. – Martin Bell heard the welcome sound of thunder Tuesday as he hoped for more rain at Okefenokee Swamp Park south of Waycross.
The park has gotten more than 6 inches of rain over the past 10 days but needs at least that much more to reopen tour boat trails that have been closed for months, said Bell, who manages the park on the northeastern edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
As they wait for the water to rise, park staff members are working from a boat in the trails clearing snags, overhanging limbs and fallen trees, he said.
“We’re just scraping bottom to do it,” Bell said. “It’s not deep enough to run a tour boat.”
The park is also awaiting bids on replacing more than 1,200 feet of boardwalk and a wooden bridge lost when the fire flared up last month, he said.
Despite as much as seven inches of rainfall in the region since June 1, officials monitoring the huge, nearly 2-month-old wildfire say it’s not time to declare the danger is over.
“It’s helped quite a bit,” said Richard Reuse, a spokesman with the Joint Information Center. “But it’s not completely out. There is still smoke. The peat is still smoldering.”
The rains falling in the area have been scattered, with some areas getting a needed soaking and other areas seeing little precipitation, Reuse said.
“We need a heavy uniform rain to knock it down,” he said. “The fire is 30 miles wide at its widest point. The rains are only falling on a portion of the fire.”
The rains haven’t delivered a knockout blow to the fires, but it’s been enough to declare the Florida Bugaboo Fire 100 percent contained and prompt scaling back the number of personnel monitoring the region.
It’s “possible, but unlikely” the Florida portion of the fire will cause further problems for residents, Reuse said.
Thunderstorms have sparked several new fires outside the wildlife refuge the past several days that were quickly extinguished, showing the potential for more problems, Reuse said.
Fire officials will no longer post fire updates in public places. The postings will resume if there is a significant increase in fire activity, according to what was described Tuesday as the final wildfire update from the Joint Information Center.
A fire management team will remain in the area to monitor hot spots. Assuming fire activity remains low, the mop-up command will be demobilized Monday.
“Right now, with the rain we’ve had, things are looking up,” Reuse said.
The fire is also going to change the visitor experience at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which is scheduled to reopen Saturday at the east entrance, south of Folkston.
Jim Burkhart, the supervisory ranger at the refuge, said modified boat tours will be offered along a 2-mile stretch of a canal from the visitor center into an area burned by the fire. But the boardwalk and viewing platform will remain closed.
Burkhart predicted visitors will return to the refuge “as a curiosity and to see what fire does to a swamp environment.”
“They will get a good chance to see an upland forest community in a different stage,” he said. “I think they are going to get quite a view. Hopefully, there’s an interest out there.”
Because much of the undergrowth has burned, visitors will likely see animals such as deer and turkeys that are normally difficult to see.
When the hiking trails reopen, Burkhart said visitors should be prepared to get a little dirty from the ashes and burned foliage, but it will be worth the trip to see how quickly plants are growing back.