Hot weather, winds could fan south Ga. fires

A worker, using a farm spray rig, wets down the woods along Pine Valley Road to prevent the approaching Race Pond Fire from crossing the road in Waycross, Ga.



FOLKSTON, Ga. -- The enormous fires burning in and near the Okefenokee Swamp have the potential for extreme behavior in coming days as the heat builds and rain holds off, officials said.

Firefighters are racing to build defenses against the 251,570-acre Honey Prairie Fire Complex in one area in particular.

The biggest concern is on the northeastern boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge where there is a gap between the Sawfly Fire and the northern edge of what was once the Paxton Road Fire, said Joe Mazzeo, a fire information officer for the team battling the fire.

Since they burned together, the Paxton Road Fire is now part of the Honey Prairie Fire.

The former Paxton Road Fire has burned a thumb-shaped swath to the north that is west of that gap. If the forecasts hold of winds from the west and southwest, the fire could head toward that gap, officials said.

Mazzeo said crews are using burnouts to strengthen lines and keep the fire in the swamp. They are building on breaks that are already there, most notably the Swamp Edge Break, but those don't show up on the maps until there are burnouts. There are a couple of short fingers extending from each and Mazzeo said the plan is to bring those together.

The firefighters are working in areas that are very hard to access, he said.

The Georgia Forestry Commission has breaks around the 21,220-acre Race Pond Fire and the 19,725-acre Sweat Farm Again Fire, said Eric Mosley, a fire information officer for the agency.

And Friday night there was substantial rain, more than an inch on each fire, but that moisture is disappearing as temperatures climb, Mosley said.

"There's obviously a potential that those fires could escape,'' he said.

The Race Pond Fire escaped and burned more than 13,000 additional acres after it was 100 percent contained, he said.

"Contained does not mean controlled,'' he said.

There will be winds of 10 to 15 mph with gusts of 17 mph and a heat index of 110 degrees this week, he said.

"All together, that could be dangerous for firefighters,'' Mosley said.

As the firefighters work to protect forests that haven't burned, loggers are harvesting those that have before the rot sets in. Logging trucks loaded with charred pines are leaving the woods along U.S. 1, where the Race Pond Fire has burned on both sides, and heading to markets.

For all the work of professionals, Charlton County, Ga., Commission Chairman John Meyer was praising volunteer firefighters who have protected houses from the wildfires, sometimes through the night.

"They'll be up 24 to 36 hours and don't hear them complaining. I just have the greatest respect for them,'' he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Forestry Commission and Florida Division of Forestry are stretched thin in fighting the fires. The Forestry Commission is bringing in firefighters and their equipment from other states while federal teams move in and out.

"Trying to get other resources from around the country to the swamp has been tough because of the number of other fires,'' Mazzeo said.

A blanket of smoke from the swamp fires lay over a wide area that extended into Nassau County, Fla., at noon and all the way to St. Marys, Ga., in the afternoon.

In one positive development, the 1,200-acre Waverly Fire is contained and was not sending up as much smoke Monday. It was blamed for heavy smoke that enveloped parts of Glynn County, Ga., and Camden County, Ga., over the weekend.

The fires are already taking some of the bang out of July 4. Because of the fire danger, the Brantley County, Ga., Chamber of Commerce has postponed its July 4 fireworks display until Labor Day, Chamber Presdient Ruby Ann Sawyer said.

Sawyer said the decision was made after consulting with Brantley County Emergency Management Director Billy Lartz, who said both he and Georgia Forestry Commission advised against fireworks displays because of the extremely dry conditions.

All four swamp entrances, Okefenokee Swamp Park, Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, Stephen C. Foster State Park and Kingfisher Landing, are still closed.




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