published Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Local crews battle flames, snakes, heat in South Georgia swamp fire


by Andy Johns
Firefighters from various agencies look after a fire set in the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge at Stephen C. Foster State Park near Fargo, Ga. The fire was set during a prescribed burn to try to contain the Honey Prairie blaze in the Okefenokee Swamp.
The Florida Times-Union, Will Dickey, Will.Dickey@jacksonville.com
Firefighters from various agencies look after a fire set in the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge at Stephen C. Foster State Park near Fargo, Ga. The fire was set during a prescribed burn to try to contain the Honey Prairie blaze in the Okefenokee Swamp. The Florida Times-Union, Will Dickey, Will.Dickey@jacksonville.com

If ideal conditions exist for fighting forest fires, the Okefenokee Swamp’s 104-degree heat, swarms of mosquitoes and bulldozer-eating bogs aren’t even close.

And don’t forget the rattlesnakes and alligators.

But that hasn’t stopped Northwest Georgia forestry crews from heading down to the Georgia-Florida border to battle one of the wilder wildfires they’ve encountered.

“It’s one of everybody’s least favorites,” said Jeremy Ridley, a ranger with the Catoosa-Whitfield Forestry Office who just returned from the swamp.

More than 30 forestry workers from Northwest Georgia have been on two-week shifts in the famous swamp since May 6.

Ridley said firefighters are quick to volunteer for fires in California or Texas, but those who remember the Okefenokee fires of 2007 aren’t as enthusiastic about raising their hands.

“It gets to the point where they have to make people go because nobody volunteers,” he said.

In all, about 500 firefighters are working in the swamp, primarily on two fires. The biggest already has scorched more than 250 square miles. It is believed to have been started by an April 30 lightning strike and is fueled by drought-dried foliage and timber. Officials say the fire, called the Honey Prairie Fire, is about 80 percent contained.

The other blaze, named the Racepond Fire, has burned about 12 square miles on the swamp’s northern end but now is 70 percent contained.

Lightning from thunderstorms this week has caused nearly 50 small fires that diverted fire crews’ attention.

Fire officials told The Associated Press it will take several days of soaking rains to douse the blazes.

This week an Oklahoma firefighter was airlifted to a Jacksonville, Fla., hospital after he was bitten by a rattlesnake, according to the Charlton County Herald. Doctors said the snake injected very little venom into the man’s leg and that he was expected to be fine.

Ridley said they’ve seen bears and boars fleeing the flames, but reptiles are a major concern.

“Gators and snakes are the biggest things,” he said. “If you saw water, odds are there was a gator in it.”

Josh Burnette, a management forester who covers Catoosa, Walker, Dade, Chattooga and Whitfield counties, said he and other forestry workers cleaned up after tornadoes for two weeks straight before being relieved of that duty. They had one day off before they got a call to head to the Okefenokee.

“That very next day, we packed up our stuff and headed to South Georgia for two weeks,” Burnette said.

Burnette said he spent most of the time at the emergency headquarters rather than on the front lines. One thing he learned is how conventional logistics don’t always work in a swamp.

Crews have to be very careful where they take the trucks and dozers. In some spots, Burnette said, vegetation on top of ponds is afire and crews can bulldoze only around the water and bogs to contain the flames.

“When you get that heavy equipment in there, it will swallow the equipment up,” he said.

Several pieces of equipment have gotten stuck, but nothing has been lost, he said.

Some of the swamp’s most remote areas are considered wilderness, a federal classification that means crews will not fight the flames and “nature will be allowed to take its course,” Burnette said.

about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

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