USA — Lorene Odom’s arms were dusted with flour halfway to her elbows.
She was battering pork chops at her family’s Suwannee River Cafe getting ready for the noon rush of firefighters that was bound to come.
The fires that have wreathed Fargo, Folkston and sometimes Waycross in smoke since late April scared a lot of people and shut down a lot of parks. They have nonetheless been good for business.
“We were talking about cutting down to three days a week,” her granddaughter Vickie Sutton said.
But with hundreds of men and women working out of the Suwannee River Eco-Lodge, the ovens and deep-fat fryers have barely had time to cool down between meals.
Odum said she doesn’t like the fires but is glad that she is open to feed the firefighters.
“We really needed some business, as long as the fire doesn’t get houses,” she said.
About 60 had come in for breakfast which is about a normal day’s business and the restaurant has been serving about 300 a day during the fire.
Besides, swamp officials always make the case that the Okefenokee needs fire to survive, that fire burns peat out of waterways and clears out the so called shrub-scrub vegetation that can grow almost too thick for a snake to maneuver.
The fire sparks
Lightning started an anonymous fire in the southwestern corner of the Okefenokee National Refuge on April 28. It was discovered a day later and shortly into its growth spurt, it had a name, the Honey Prairie Fire, for one of the swamp’s big, wet plains. But none of the prairies are all that wet, and the fire tore all the way across the swamp to the other side.
As it grew, so did the team from federal agencies, the Florida Division of Forestry and the Georgia Forestry Commission.
More than 1,500 firefighters came from 48 states and Canada, staying in hotels in Waycross, Lake Park, Lake City, Folkston, Valdosta and other cities, and eating at local restaurants.
The Eco-Lodge opened in February offering eight rental cottages, a conference room, meeting room, commercial kitchen and barbecue house. It is advertised as perfect for weddings or retreats with its woodland views, but don’t look for a manicured St. Augustine lawn. They mow whatever grows naturally.
After the fire began, the placid Eco-Lodge became the main incident command post, a busy nerve center.
“We were the first tenants,” said C.J. Norvell, a fire information officer. “This is one of the nicest incident command posts I’ve ever seen.”
Phyllis Swanson, who has worked on many Western fires, can attest to that. Typically, the fire base camps are just that, camps with a lot of tents, she said.
Buck Kline of the Georgia Forestry Commission came to the refuge April 30. He’s been one of three incident commanders guiding the unified response ever since.
He works in the meeting room where meteorologists can tell him which way the wind will blow and how strongly and if there will be rain. There are laptops on seemingly every flat surface but, leaving nothing to chance or the loss of electricity, there are also color-coded personnel charts on poster boards and maps taped to walls.
The fire managers can check the charts to keep track of fire engines and tractor plows, where everyone is, and shift resources to meet what Kline called a very challenging fire.
Next door in the big conference room, there is even more activity as firefighters check in and out, some arriving from Oregon, Minnesota and other far-off places and others leaving for home.
While the Eco-Lodge is the main command post, satellites were established at Ruskin Elementary School west of Waycross, the Forestry Commission’s Satilla District headquarters south of Waycross and at refuge headquarters at Suwannee Canal Recreation Area.
In the cities, restaurant and hotel parking lots are loaded with trucks with similar missions, but in different colors because they’re from dozens of states’ forestry departments.
Stephanie Farmer, the front desk manager at the Waycross Quality Inn, said the hotel has been full for weeks, as have most others in town.
“It is a slower time of year for us,” she said. “We do some family reunions, but we’re usually not full in the summer.”
There are only four motel rooms in Fargo, and those have been booked throughout the fire.
About 7 a.m. Tuesday, more than half the breakfast crowd at the Okefenokee Restaurant in Folkston was firefighters, with small wildland fire trucks parked out front. Owner Mike Phillips said the firefighters are replacing local business run off by the fire.
“People didn’t want to get out in all that smoke. They stayed home,” and tourism is also down because nobody can visit the swamp, Phillips said.
“That’s the only good news about the fire,” he said of the new diners. “I’d rather it be out than get that little bit of money.”
He may get his wish. Rain has fallen on the fires albeit spotty and Norvell said that surveillance flights were finding fewer open flames each day.
And Kline, who had been fighting fires in the dry spring long before anyone put Honey Prairie Fire on a keepsake T-shirt, was very relaxed Tuesday.
“We’re getting into our rainy season,” he said. “It ought to be over soon.”