Originally created 05/08/02

Crews prepare for fires' escape



FOLKSTON, Ga. - As two wildfires in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge continue to grow, the Georgia Forestry Commission is making preparations to battle the blazes if they escape the world-famous swamp.

Forestry crews are using 24 fire plows - small bulldozers with a V-shaped blade on front and a plow on the rear - to cut 5-foot-wide paths on private timberland that will be the first line of defense if the fire makes a run out of the 400,000-acre swamp. As of Monday, the fires were burning back into the swamp's interior, officials said, and the park remained open.

There is no immediate threat the blazes will burn onto private property, said Jim Burkhart, a refuge ranger, but it's important to give firefighters enough time to react because of the unpredictable nature of wildfires. Both fires are at least a mile from private land, he said.

The largest fire, near Blackjack Island in the south-central region of the swamp, grew to 20,600 acres yesterday, refuge officials said. The smaller fire, called the Bay Creek fire, on the west side of the swamp, grew to 2,400 acres. Both fires were caused by lightning strikes last week, refuge officials said.

A flyover showed flames licking the tops of trees 50 feet high yesterday, and smoke was reported as far west as the Alabama state line, Mr. Burkhart said.

John Godwin, a strike team leader for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said his crews are working 12-hour shifts to cut fire lines.

If the fire escapes the refuge, Mr. Godwin said his crews' tactics will "change drastically." Heavier plows will be brought in to clear wider paths by knocking down trees - that should stop the flames from spreading, Mr. Godwin said.