Early spring, dry conditions could mean busy wildfire season in Georgia

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The Honey Prairie fire was one of three that burned nearly 340,000 acres in and near the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia last year. The was wildfire started by lightning and it was still smoldering and sputtering six months after it started.  HOWARD MCCULLOUGH/ US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
HOWARD MCCULLOUGH/ US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
The Honey Prairie fire was one of three that burned nearly 340,000 acres in and near the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia last year. The was wildfire started by lightning and it was still smoldering and sputtering six months after it started.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — With forecasters predicting an early spring in southeast Georgia, forestry officials are gearing up for what could be an early start to a fire season they fear could be a repeat of 2011.

Three large fires torched nearly 340,000 acres in and near the Okefenokee Swamp last year.

Now, forecasters are predicting average rainfall for February, said Jason Gillis, the interim district manager at the Georgia Forestry Commission’s Satilla District office. Still, that won’t be enough to cut into the drought that has left the woods and swamps dry.

The conditions mean wildfires could be popping up in a few weeks, Gillis said.

Also, the swamp water levels that alarmed officials in February 2011 are slightly lower now, said Arthur Webster, the supervisory ranger at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

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.

The Okefenokee doesn’t have enough fuel left to be as dangerous as in 2011, authorities say; 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 again.


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