Okefenokee takes on role of phoenix, rises from ash

Okefenokee takes on role of phoenix, rises from ash

6 August 2007

published by www.jacksonville.com

Jacksonville, FL, USA — Rains during the past few weeks have knocked down the active flames from wildfires that consumed more than a half-million acres. But those rains haven’t been sufficient to extinguish smoldering areas in the northwest area of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, officialssaid.

Shawn Gillette, a refuge ranger, said the hot spots are contained in thick layers of peat moss that won’t be extinguished until the water table rises another 2 feet.

“We’re going to continue monitoring it,” he said. “There are no active flames; it’s just smoldering. It’s not spreading significantly.”

Because the hot spots are contained in an isolated area, most of the world-famous wildlife refuge is open, and visitors are returning.

“We’re still down in visitation, but it’s starting to increase,” Gillette said. “The word of mouth is starting to get out.”

Visitors coming to tour the 438,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp still are restricted in what they can see, but not because of the threat of fire. Low water levels are making canoe trips into the swamp’s interior an “arduous paddle,” he said.

The low water also is forcing operators of the swamp’s concession, Okefenokee Adventures, to limit the number of passengers on tour boats to about half the normal capacity.

Chip Campbell, the concession owner, said the impact of the fire, which burned more than 333,000 acres in the refuge, is becoming less noticeable along the water tour route on the Suwannee Canal.

“They are not seeing a fire-ravaged landscape,” he said. “They see some black [where fire burned], but they are seeing regrowth greening up.”

Visitors also are seeing more wildlife than normal because the fires have burned underbrush where animals such a black bears, deer and some birds hide.

“We’ve had a lot of people seeing bears on Chesser Island pretty regularly,” he said. “We had a bear swim across the canal in front of [a] tour boat.”

Alligators are literally “stacked up” along the canal, he said. Visitors also regularly see otters, which rarely are seen in summer months, Campbell said.

The one place visitors can see visible evidence of the fire is at Chesser Island, where a huge expanse of underbrush burned, he said.

While tourists were restricted from visiting the swamp during the fire, Campbell, whose business was closed from May 8 until June 23, said he was lucky to have a food concession that fed as many as 400 firefighters a day until the fire was contained.

Feeding firefighters helped him keep much of his staff working and saved his business from serious financial losses, he said.

Martin Bell, manager of the Okefenokee Swamp Park at the north end of the swamp near Waycross, said visitors also are returning despite low water levels that prevent him from offering boat tours.

“We’ve gotten some recent rain, but it’s not enough,” he said. “We are still offering our train tours, however.”

He estimated water levels will have to rise from 6 to 10 inches before boat tours resume.

Visitors still coming

Typically, this time of year is slow for business because of the heat, gnats and yellow flies, Bell said.

Still, visitors are coming, many to see how the fire impacted the swamp.

Bell said he’s still waiting to learn whether the federal government will help pay to rebuild a 1,200-foot boardwalk destroyed by the fires. He estimated it will cost about $93,000 to rebuild.

“It was pretty popular,” he said of the boardwalk. “It was a good way to get out in the swamp.”

Visitors who do show up can see plenty of evidence of the fire and how the swamp is quickly recovering, he said.

“You can already see some of the plants rejuvenating themselves,” he said. “This would be a good time to visit.”

Shallow canal deters some

At Stephen C. Foster State Park near Fargo, visitation is remains down, park manager Joe Yeager said.

“It’s been very slow. It’s been difficult to rent a boat,” he said.

Although there is enough water in Billy’s Lake to run motors, fishermen and others don’t like the 1/3-mile paddle along a canal where water still is too shallow to run a motor, Yeager said. That canal connects the park’s boat basin to the lake.

After a lot of cancellations during and after the fires, families are returning for reunions, renting the cabins and using the picnic shelters, Yeager said.

And like other places in the swamp, the wildlife is visible at Stephen Foster, Yeager said.

“I see a bear about every morning coming in,” he said.

The bears are eating the tender palmetto shoots emerging from burned areas, he said.

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