USA — It’s official. The massive Honey Prairie Fire has been declared out less than two weeks before the anniversary of the lightning strike that started it in the southwest corner of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Although 13 inches of rain have fallen since Jan. 1 near a swamp weather reporting station, fire officials were still reluctant to say the 309,200-acre fire was completely out. Swamp fires are notorious for smoldering deeply in dry peat and then flaring up when conditions are prime as they have been recently.
But after the fire didn’t rouse up during last week’s low humidity and gusting winds, fire management officer Mike Housh declared the fire out Monday, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge said in a prepared release.
The fire-fighting effort peaked June 27 when there were 1,458 personnel, 202 fire engines, 112 bulldozers, 20 water tenders and 12 helicopters assigned to what was then a 283,673-acre fire. From that point on, the force declined as the fire crept toward the still unburned northwest corner of the 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge having burned much of the rest.
As recently as September, the fire jumped a break and burned more than 1,350 acres on the west side before a fire-fighting crew got in front of it and plowed a break.
The goal all along was to contain the fire within the refuge boundaries and firefighters succeeded for the most part with only 18,206 acres of private land burned.
The losses went beyond timber. When the fire was at its meanest in early July, it burned all 4,000 feet of the boardwalk on Chesser Island at the Suwannee Canal Recreation area and damaged Owl’s Roost, the observation tower at its end. It also destroyed or caused the closure of overnight camping platforms, felled trees across canoe and boat trails and burned other shorter boardwalks.
The estimated cost of replacing the Chesser Island boardwalk alone is about $2.5 million and it could cost about $160,000 to repair the tower. Refuge Manager Curt McCasland said his office is pursuing the rebuilding but asserted it won’t be the same.
“I am confident we can completely build the boardwalk, but we will be implementing changes that will ensure we can efficiently and safely protect the boardwalk from future fires,” he said.
That includes fire resistant support pilings to lower repair costs from future fires and a new or refurbished well to provide enough water at sufficient pressure to irrigate around the boardwalk, McCasland said.
There was a fire suppression system in place at the time, but it is believed the fire came so fast and so hot that it overwhelmed the water spray.