Fire season may torch south Georgia again

Don't be surprised to see smoky skies in months ahead

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By Terry Dickson

Morris News Service

BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- With forecasters predicting an early spring in southeast Georgia, forestry officials figure that just means an early start to a fire season that could be a repeat of 2011.

Three big fires burned nearly 340,000 acres in and near the Okefenokee Swamp. The largest, the Honey Prairie Fire, burned about 310,000 acres after lightning started it in late April.

Those budding maples that are a sign of balmy weather are a sort of red tree warning for foresters.

“When the sap starts rising, the soil gets drier and drier,” as the formerly dormant trees start pulling in water, said Jason Gillis. Gillis is interim district manager at the Georgia Forestry Commission’s Satilla District office near Waycross that covers 17 counties in Southeast Georgia.

Forecasters are predicting average rainfall for February, but that won’t be enough to cut into the drought that has left the woods and swamps dry, he said.

That means wildfires could be popping up in a few weeks, he said.

“As soon as the wind gets here and the lightning,” he said, “the end of February and early March.”

A year ago, Arthur Webster, supervisory ranger at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, was making dire predictions for spring wildfires. He was right then and is no more optimistic now with the drought expected to continue at least three more months.

In fact, the swamp water levels that alarmed officials in February 2011 are slightly lower now, he said.

“It’s been dropping since February 2011,” Webster said.

Also, some of the plants out in the swamp are starting to green up and bloom, and those plants will begin sapping water from the swamp, he said.

Less than a year removed from the Honey Prairie Fire, the Okefenokee doesn’t have enough fuel left to be as dangerous as in 2011. However, the saw palmettos, which are volatile even when green, and grasses that were burned to the ground have come back strong and the swamp is littered in places with trees that were killed by the Honey Prairie, Webster said.

Those can combine to carry a fire if the wind is right, so Webster won’t say a fire wouldn’t cross some of the same ground as last year.

There are also some areas that didn’t burn at all, and that has some people nervous. Among them is Martin Bell, manager of Okefenokee Swamp Park south of Waycross.

“What didn’t burn is band right around us,” he said. It would take only a lightning strike to ignite it and the park’s wildlife attractions and buildings would be in danger as they were in 2011.

In spite of the low water, the Swamp Park is conducting some boat tours although it had to make some changes.

The park bought air-cooled motors that will run in low water, Bell said, and runs tours with four to five people in a boat so they can run in the shallow canals.

“We’re just putting around educating them about the swamp as we go,” Bell said.

The winter warmth has fooled a lot of nature into thinking it’s spring, he said.

“The pollen’s falling and the gators are bellowing,” he said. “The wildlife thinks it’s spring even if it’s not.”

Lest he forget what happened last year when fire jumped the park’s entrance road and closed it for weeks at a time, the wind sometimes brings a reminder.

“It got smoky eight or 10 days ago,” he said.

That smoke was probably not from the Honey Prairie, but from a prescribed burn in Osceola National Forest, Webster said.

“The last time they flew over it, they didn’t see any smoke,” Webster said of the Honey Prairie. “But we still haven’t called it out.”

The big fires have at least helped prepare for this year as firefighters cleared and widened fire breaks. And Gillis said he’s been busy lining up Georgia Forestry Commission equipment and manpower to head south on short notice.

terry.dickson@jacksonville.com, (912) 264-0405


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