Okefenokee fire nears 72,000 acres as it burns toward Florida

Okefenokee fire nears 72,000 acres as it burns toward Florida

09 May 2011

published by www.kasa.com

USA — The Honey Prairie Fire has burned nearly 72,000 acres of the Okefenokee Swamp, some of it private timber land on the eastern edge of the swamp, and was less than 1.5 miles from Florida.

About 5 p.m. Monday, the wind was coming out of the north and appeared to be pushing the fire farther south, said Arthur Webster, chief interpretive ranger of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

“The most activity is on that southern flank,” he said.

That southern flank is huge considering the fire reaches 18 miles from east to west, but firefighters, including the Georgia Forestry Commission and Florida Division of Forestry, are getting prepared to stop it.

The most activity Sunday was in the southeast area where, about 8:30 p.m., the fire jumped the Swamp Edge Break at Crawford and Katie roads about six miles northwest of St. George and burned timber owned by Toledo Manufacturing, Webster said.

“We had resources prepositioned so they got on it,” he said.

The fire had burned right up to the break farther south but was kept inside containment lines, Webster said.

There are now 170 people devoted to the fire and many were busy Monday getting ready for the fire’s next push.

Not only were crews improving existing firebreaks, they were plowing between every third row of planted pines on private timberland to add some extra protection, Webster said.

A map that the refuge released Monday afternoon showed that on its southern edge, the fire was approaching some uplands inside the refuge. Webster said earlier that wildfires tend to move faster along uplands where they are not hampered by the pockets of water that remain in the swamp even with the prolonged drought.

There is, however, some still wet prairies in the area and the refuge has conducted prescribed burns on uplands there to deprive wildfires, like this one, of fuel, he said.

Today’s morning winds will be 5 mph or less out of the west but are predicted to shift to the northwest by midmorning at 6-11 mph with possible gusts of 18 mph. There is also a chance of thundershowers in the afternoon.

The fire was pushing smoke and ash into Jacksonville Monday but the changing winds could move the smoke plume farther west today, Webster said.

At refuge headquarters at Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, there were some light flurries of ash but no smoke.

The refuge is reverting to some old fashioned methods to make sure everyone is kept up to date on the fire’s behavior.

Retired refuge forester Ron Phernetton was posting news releases and fire maps on bulletin boards at Folkston City Hall and the old train depot and leaving them at businesses in Folkston.

“There’s a gossip table at McDonald’s” that he likes to keep informed, Phernetton said.

Asked about electronic advisories, Webster said, “Not everybody has that.”

The fire has virtually killed the boat tour and canoe rental business at Okefenokee Adventures at Suwannee Canal but has also brought in some additional work for the kitchen, owner Joy Campbell said.

The store is providing 50 breakfasts and 170 sack lunches for the firefighters, Campbell said.

Judging by food alone, the fire is not nearly as bad as those of 2007 when Okefenokee Adventures was preparing 400 lunches, she said.

Although all the canoe trails off the Suwannee Canal are closed, the company is getting some visitation, Campbell said.

“Everybody traveling doesn’t know we have this big fire,” and they’re still dropping in, she said. “They’re able to at least see alligators, see the film [on the swamp], walk some trails and learn about the fire.”

With the water so low, alligators have congregated in the boat basin just off the parking lot, she said.

The concessionaire typically does a lot of tours for school groups as the school year winds down, but those have been canceled, Campbell said.

The company was also protecting its interests making sure all of its canoes were in the open away from any trees that could burn.

The refuge has taken steps to protect structures in the swamp, wrapping the historic cabin on remote Floyd’s Island in a protective foil sheet, Webster said.

Officials had considered doing the same at the Chesser Island Homestead, but decided it could harm the buildings, he said.

The heavy staples that secure the wrapping could damage the wood, especially when they’re removed, he said, so the refuge decided to clear out firebreaks around the grounds and then station fire engines there should the fire come back toward the northeast.

Anyone planning to visit the refuge should call (912) 496-7836 or consult the website fws.gov/okefenokee for the latest fire information.

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