Okefenokee fire in nation's largest

spectr17

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Okefenokee fire is nation's largest

120,000-acre blaze douses 'fire is bad' assumptions

6/16/02

By DANA TOFIG, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

FOLKSTON -- Pat Hadaway floated down the Suwannee Canal in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge searching for gators, unaware that the biggest wildfire in the nation was burning nearby.

"I knew there was one in Colorado," the New Albany, Miss., tourist said as he stood near the gunwale of a tour boat. "But not down here."

For more than three months, a wildfire has scorched nearly a third of the Okefenokee swamplands, which overlap the border that separates southeast Georgia and Florida.

Unlike Colorado, where blazes are threatening south of the Denver suburbs, there is no sense of panic about where the Okefenokee fire is going next. In fact, firefighters aren't even trying to put it out.

"The nice part is, it's burned [122,000] acres, yet it's not been a destructive fire," said Jim Burkhart, the refuge ranger at the Okefenokee.

This is the good fire.

The Okefenokee needs fire to survive. The flames clear out areas that have become overgrown and allow the swamp's diverse plant life to thrive. Because firefighters have kept the blaze inside the swamp, there is very little threat to the people who live nearby. And the sheer immensity of the wildlife refuge -- it's bigger than DeKalb and Cobb counties combined -- means tourists can gawk at gators, bird-watch and camp out with almost no hint of the fire.

But media images of wildfires cutting a swath of destruction, like those from Colorado, do scare some people, Burkhart said.

"The message that the public is getting out of that is 'fire is bad,' " he said. "It's not necessarily bad."

Firefighters in control

A group of firefighters trudges into the southern edge of the swamp. All around, small plumes of smoke rise from the base of trees. They attack one hot spot with axes and picks and -- poof -- flames shoot up.

"That, right there, is all it takes for this thing to get going again," said John Mewborn, a firefighter from North Carolina, as the area was doused with a foam and water mixture. "And there's more of them. They're just hiding."

Actually, three wildfires have burned in the Okefenokee. The first began March 20, when embers from a prescribed burn -- a fire purposely set to foster growth -- were fanned by heat and wind. A lightning strike sparked the biggest of the three blazes, on Blackjack Island. By early May, the fires were cooking.

Wildfires are not unusual in the swamp; there have been several over the past 20 years. In 1990, a wildfire burned more than 20,000 acres, but back then the firefighters' marching orders were different.

"We were told [by the U.S. Department of the Interior] to put that fire out, and we couldn't do it," said Burkhart. "We tried everything."

Now, with recognition that fires help the swamp, the focus is on keeping the flames away from the "uplands," islands and other elevated areas in the Okefenokee that are not considered swamp.

The whole swamp is encircled by a man-made dirt path as wide as a city street in spots. The path makes it harder for the fire to jump from the depressed areas filled with sawgrass and peat to the refuge's uplands and outer edges. It also provides an area from which firefighters can contain the blaze.

One of the best tools for preventing a fire from spreading is fire itself. Controlled blazes are set on the outer edge of the swamp, burning off the fuel that a wildfire feeds on, like peat, leaves and plants. When the wildfire hits that area, it has little to burn and, like a hurricane hitting land, it quickly loses strength.

Teams of firefighters from across the country -- as well as local, state and federal officials -- have assembled to contain the blaze. They have the support of the owners of adjacent land, mostly timber companies that have an interest in protecting their cash crop of trees. The effort has cost the National Fire Suppression Fund, a federal taxpayer-fed account, more than $5 million.

So far, it's been successful. Only about 20 acres of woods outside the the refuge have burned, and the damage has been minimal. And there have been no injuries to firefighters or anyone else.

Some recent rains have pushed the fire underground, where it continues to smolder and creep.

Infrared devices carried by helicopters scan the refuge for hidden hot spots, and forestry employees in towers keep an eye out for smoke. Steve Holman, a Florida forest area supervisor, said he's pleased with the success. But he knows the dry, hot summer months are coming and the fire is likely to flare up once again.

"I still think there's life in it," he said.

Smoke and ash

About a month ago, the fire threatened to slip out the west side of the swamp. So Elbert Willis and his wife gathered all their important papers and moved the lawn mowers to a relative's house just in case they had to evacuate.

"We was ready to go," said Willis, who lives on a dirt road several miles outside the swamp. But the call never came.

"We didn't have to go nowhere," he said. "We're lucky."

Thousands of Colorado residents were not so lucky. They were pushed from their homes this week as the wildfires spread to subdivisions on the outskirts of Denver. By contrast, the tiny towns surrounding the Okefenokee are made up of sparse pockets of modest homes, cabins, trailers and sheds, often surrounded by huge yards and towering pine trees.

Most of these folks know that the fire is good for the Okefenokee and understand how it is being contained. The biggest inconvenience for them has been ash and smoke. At times, the ash has covered cars and homes like New England snow. And occasionally, the smoke has mixed with fog to make driving hazardous, breathing hard and vistas eerie.

"Sometimes at night, you could see the moon and it would be orange," said 17-year-old Ashley Sapp, a waitress at the Suwannee River Cafe in Fargo on the west side of the swamp. Burkhart said the smoke had been spotted in cities as far away as Dothan, Ala., Jacksonville and Columbia.

For some, the fires have been a boon.

Business was bad at Howell's Service Center in Fargo. The logging industry was declining, and with it, the need for fuel for trucks and snacks and smokes for the drivers. But for the past few months, firefighters -- who numbered as many as 350 in May and about 120 last week-- have been buying their snacks, water and gas from the store. Each day, Lorraine Howell prays that no one gets hurt fighting the fires, but she's also thankful for the business.

"This really saved us," she said. "We were about to go under."

'It's safe to be here'

As the Burns family prepared to take a canoe ride on the Suwannee Canal, 8-year-old Larry looked nervous. The thought of alligators made him a little skittish. But one thing that didn't bother the family was the wildfires.

"We called to check out what was going on and was told everything is OK," said Paige Burns, Larry's aunt, who found out about the wildfires while researching their vacation on the Internet from her Pennsylvania home. Burkhart said his office has received many calls from tourists wondering about the wildfires.

"We flat out tell 'em that it's safe to be here," he said.

Tour boats were filled this spring with folks anxious to see the wide range of plants and wildlife in the swamp. Tourists marveled at the cypress trees, with their kneelike roots. They watched the graceful gait of the red-crested sandhill crane. And, of course, they saw plenty of alligators, whose eyes peer just over the waterline with the cold stare of an Alfred Hitchcock villain.

Some of the tourists also saw tall plumes of smoke in the distance. Tour guides made sure to tell about how the swamp thrives on fire.

"We've managed to kind of work it into things," said Chip Campbell, who runs a boat tour company at the east side of the Okefenokee. For two days in early May, Campbell's company couldn't take people out on the Suwannee Canal because the fire was a bit too close for safety's sake. But other than that, it was business as usual.

The biggest impact was felt at Stephen C. Foster State Park, on the west side of the swamp, which had to close for about 12 days last month. But the park fully reopened May 24 and there's little indication that the fire was in the neighborhood.

There is some optimism that the fire finally may be going out. However, some good, soaking rains will be needed to put out the last spark, and with Georgia's drought, the rain could be a while coming.

Until then, firefighters will keep an eye out for the blaze from the sky and the swamp's edge. And Burkhart will happily tell callers about the fire. It's a stark contrast with the dire reports coming out of Colorado.

"There is a fire here, yes, and it's good for the environment," Burkhart said, "but it shouldn't be bad for business."
 

jerry d

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The Okefenokee is a beautiful place. When I was a kid our Boy Scout Troop camped out there for a week.

We went in at Fargo and rowed boats down channels for about four hours til we got to an island where we setup camp.

Never ate so many catfish in my life. Cooked over a campfire.

Still remember it as if it were yesterday.....  
 

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