Recent rains dampening chances of swamp wildfires this summer

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FOLKSTON, Ga. - Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge officials were concerned earlier this spring that near drought conditions could mean a tense wildfire season.

Now they're dealing with flooded docks after two weeks of heavy rains saturated the ground and raised water to above-average levels, they said.

"It wasn't quite a drought, but water levels were dropping pretty quickly," said Blaine Eckberg, a refuge ranger. "We had to stop doing prescribed burns because of dry conditions."

More than 10 1/2 inches of rain has fallen in the swamp since May 15, pushing the water about 16 inches above normal for this time of year. The water is high enough to partially submerge parts of the dock used for tours and rental boats, Eckberg said.

About 1 inch fell during the same period last year.

There was no rainfall recorded at the swamp from mid-May to June 2007, during one of the busiest wildfire seasons in more than a half-century.

The high water levels are good for refuge wildlife and tourists alike, said Jim Burkhart, a refuge ranger.

"The big thing that will influence visitors is as the water rises, the alligators are less visible," he said.

Alligators, which are commonly seen basking near the water's edge, are now sunning in areas where visitors often don't or can't go, he said.

All canoe trails are open, but canoeists will have to pay close attention to signs because the vegetation that typically lines the trail is under water, Burkhart said.

"The place looks like a lake instead of like a trail," he said.

While alligators may be more difficult to see in large numbers, a lot of wading birds, turtles and blooming plants are visible throughout the swamp.

Visitors also can see bear and deer near dawn and dusk, Eckberg said.

For those intent on seeing an alligator, there are plenty in the canals along Swamp Island Drive, a road leading to the boardwalk and Chesser Island Homestead. And when water levels drop, the animals will return to areas where they are commonly viewed, Burkhart said.

During hot summer months, Eckberg said, water levels can drop rapidly, concentrating animals into smaller areas that tourists visit frequently.

"It's been pretty good at the refuge and we're still drawing a lot of foreign tourists," Eckberg said. "Visitors can go everywhere."

gordon.jackson@jacksonville.com, (912) 729-3672


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