USA — Smoke, Ash From 97,796-Acre Fire Spread Over Florida, Georgia.
A fire burning through the Okefenokee swamp for two weeks has scorched 155 square miles and spread smoke for hundreds of miles in all directions.
Smoke from the fire has been reported from Augusta, Ga., to Tampa Bay, Fla.
“Lingering smoke is reducing visibilities to under a mile in some places in the morning, when the smoke settles to ground level,” Channel 4 meteorologist Richard Nunn aid Thursday morning.
Officials said a lightning strike sparked the fire April 28. Extremely dry conditions have allowed the fire to spread to about one-quarter of the massive Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge — 97,796 acres.
About 200 personnel representing federal, state and private companies have been trying to contain the fire within the boundaries of the refuge near the Georgia-Florida border, but it has burned about 50 acres of private land east and south of the refuge over the past few days. No flames were visible from nearby communities Thursday.
Nunn said some significant rainfall is forecast for Saturday and Sunday, which be may generate more smoke in the short-term, but could be the only thing that could help firefighters keep the fire expanding.
Florida Division of Forestry personnel joined the Georgia Forestry Commission and people from local timber companies trying to expand fire breaks north of state Road 2 in Baker County. Officials said residents of 50 homes in the community of Moccasin Creek have been on standby in case they need to evacuate.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Forestry Commission believes the wildlife in the refuge is resilient enough to survive.
“Most of the wildlife in the area are pretty adept to fire,” said Eric Mosley, of the Georgia Forestry Commission. “When fire comes in, they get out of the way or throw themselves into the ground.”
Arsons Complicate Firefight Law enforcement agencies said Wednesday they were investigating several possible incidences of arson between the Okefenokee and Folkston. Investigators said several small fires were reported and suppressed by the Georgia Forestry Commission, Folkston Fire Department and Honey Prairie Fire Incident Resources.
They said the fires initiated fear among local residents that the Honey Prairie Fire was spotting onto the upland and breaking out of the swamp.
“We come out and we cut fire lines, and we’ve done about as much preparation as we can do,” resident Calvin Burnsed said. “If it gets close enough to threaten my neighbor’s house, mine will get burned down, too.”
Investigators said the new fires were at least 9 miles from the nearest active Honey Prairie Fire front and that the fire behavior on Tuesday should not cause spotting more than a quarter-mile from the fire.
“I think someone’s throwing down a cigarette accidentally, and somehow these fires get started periodically, and it’s always a time when we didn’t have any rain,” said Charles Cissel, whose historic log cabin was threatened.
Photo of Honey Prairie Fire taken from Landsat-7 satellite on Sunday. when 61,822 acres had burned. The charcoal-black burned land is surrounded by lush, green cyprus forest and prairie.
Officials have been going door to door in the area telling residents to be prepared to evacuate.
“You can get out on the back porch and see the glow at night there. I’ve been watching it,” resident Tony Rhoden said of the fire.
Rhoden said the smoke and the ash threaten everything he owns.
Fire crews have conducted several prescribed burns to stay ahead of the fire, trying to eliminate the excess fuel.
“When you get a knock on your door and you have to evacuate, you get scared,” resident Felicia Raulerson said.
Refuge officials said water levels in the Okefenokee swamp are lower now than they were prior to the fires in 2007, which burned 180 square miles from Waycross south into north Florida. Temperatures rising above 90 degrees Wednesday also made firefighting efforts more difficult.
“It’s a tough deal,” said Keith Osteen, of the Florida Division of Forestry. The last few days have been pretty hot. We try to keep everyone hydrated.”
The firefighters themselves willingly put themselves in danger in order to keep the community safe.
“You get to go home with the knowledge that you possibly kept someones house from burning down,” said Edward Parrish.
Anyone planning a visit to the refuge can call the Visitor Center at 912-496-7836 or visit FWS.gov/Okefenokee for the latest fire information.