Forestry official: National refuge fire could burn 6 months

(Courtesy: National Park Service)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - A wildfire that has scorched more than 70 square miles (180 square kilometers) of public lands near the Georgia-Florida state line could burn for the next six months unless heavy rains snuff out the flames sooner, fire officials said Monday.

A bolt of lightning sparked the blaze April 6 inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Strong winds over the weekend pushed the flames farther into areas of the swamp parched by drought, causing the fire's footprint to grow by 76 percent between Friday and Monday.

So far, nearly all of the burning acreage has been confined to the Okefenokee refuge in southeast Georgia, as well as the neighboring Osceola National Forest and John M. Bethea State Forest in Florida. However, residents of small communities near the swamp edge have been warned to pack bags in case the flames creep close enough to trigger evacuations.

Firefighters working to contain the blaze expect the effort to last several months. Commanders estimate the fire may not be extinguished or completely contained until November, said Susan Granbery of the Georgia Forestry Commission.

"We're waiting for a large storm event," Granbery said. "A major rain event will be what it takes to put the fire out. They're estimating that is generally sometime between June and November."

After burning nearly three weeks, the wildfire has charred a relatively small portion of the Okefenokee refuge's vast 635 square miles (1,645 sq. kilometers). Naturally occurring fire is needed periodically to keep the swamp healthy. Otherwise it would become overgrown and eventually convert to dry uplands.

That means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, prefers to let the fire burn within the Okefenokee's boundaries while firefighters use bulldozers to fortify fire breaks along the refuge perimeter to keep flames from spreading to private land. Meanwhile, sheets of fire-resistant wrap and sprinkler systems have been used to protect a historic homestead, boardwalks and campsites inside the refuge.

Granbery said Monday that the fire still posed no immediate threat to residents living just outside the swamp. But residents of tiny Fargo, where about 320 people live on the refuge's western edge, and in a rural stretch of Charlton County near its eastern border have been urged to be ready if evacuations become necessary.

Shawn Boatright, county administrator for Charlton County, said officials spent the weekend going door-to-door to warn residents nearest the swamp. There was no imminent fire threat Monday, but parts of the county were smothered in smoke.

"Right now visibility is almost minimal due to the smoke from the fire," Boatright said. "I can smell the smoke here in my building just from people opening up the doors."

Extremely dry conditions aren't helping to slow the fire's progress. The U.S. Drought Monitor says the Okefenokee refuge is suffering from moderate to severe drought. Scattered thunderstorms crossing southeast Georgia on Sunday and Monday morning failed to dump any significant rain.

Wildfires have burned for extended periods inside the Okefenokee refuge before. Another fire started by lightning in April 2011 burned and smoldered for nearly full year. It charred about 480 square miles (1,250 sq. kilometers) before authorities declared it extinguished.