By RUSS BYNUM
SAVANNAH, Ga. - A wildfire that scorched hundreds of square miles since last spring continues to creep through the Okefenokee Swamp as it burns underground fueled by dead and decaying plants - and the cost to taxpayers so far is $52.7 million and rising.
It's been six months since a lightning strike ignited the Honey Prairie fire April 28, deep within the boundaries of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near the Georgia-Florida line. There's little if any active flame and the smoke that once smothered much of southeast Georgia has been reduced to sporadic puffs wafting up from the swamp's surface.
"It's burning down mostly underground," said Arthur Webster, supervisory ranger for the 402,000-acre refuge. "It's burning deeply enough where occasionally a tree will just fall over because all the peat is burned out around it."
Still, the fire continues to slowly consume acreage - and to burn money. And officials say its nearly dormant state belies concerns that the fire could still come roaring back to life and threaten nearby communities.
The latest estimate says the fire has burned 309,199 acres, or 483 square miles, mostly within the refuge. All but about 14 square miles had already burned by mid-July. James Johnson, the Georgia Forestry Commission's chief of forest management, says 14,000 acres of private timberland have burned - about 22 square miles - for an estimate loss of $9.3 million.
A crew of 59 firefighters is assigned to put out smoldering hotspots and keep the fire's remains from escaping the swamp into private timberland. The cost to taxpayers for fighting the fire is rising by about $30,000 to $40,000 per day, Webster said.
Sporadic rains since summer have helped knock down active flames and replenish moisture to grasses and plants that had been dry as tinder. But there hasn't been enough rainfall to snuff the fire completely and forecasts are calling for an unusually dry winter ahead.
Alan Dozier, fire chief for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said he expects the Okefenokee fire will burn well into 2012 and eventually flare back to life. He noted there's still about 100,000 acres of the refuge, mostly in the northern areas of the swamp near Waycross, that haven't burned.
"I don't know if it's going to start next week or next month or in March or April, but I'm figuring sooner or later it will become a roaring fire again," said Dozier, whose firefighters are now in charge of the Okefenokee team. "And we'll have to fight it just like it's a new fire."
Having survived six months, the Okefenokee fire has outlived - by just over two weeks - the massive 2007 fires that burned more than 553,000 acres in the swamp and neighboring communities in southeast Georgia and northern Florida.
Other wildfires have lasted longer. Between 1954 and 1955, a fire in the Okefenokee burned for more than a year, Webster said. Swamps need periodic fire to clean out overgrown vegetation that otherwise would convert them to uplands, so firefighters tend to let them burn as long as they're not threatening people or their property.
The Honey Prairie fire, burning in a part of Georgia that's sparsely populated for many miles outside the swamp boundaries, has also been far from the most expensive to fight. A 2002 wildfire in Oregon that burned 500,000 acres cost an astronomical $150 million to extinguish. Two California fires in 2007 and 2008 each ran up a tab of more than $120 million, according to the Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center, which monitors wildfires nationwide.
No homes or lives have been lost to the still-burning Okefenokee fire, in part because only about 28 square miles of the fire area spilled outside the swamp. And most of that was sparsely populated timberland.
Kenton McLaine is commission chairman for Clinch County on the west side of the swamp, where the fire continues to sputter and creep. He said more frequent rains in the late summer and fall seem to have driven the blaze from residents' minds. He couldn't remember the last time heavy smoke from the Okefenokee drifted into the community.
"It can't be burning too much," McLaine said. "You never hear anything about it."
Robbie Lee, mayor of Fargo in Clinch County, said fire officials have been mindful of costs.
"The incident management teams working this fire have done a real good job of keeping fire costs down," said Lee, whose city is among the closest to the fire.
Lee said fire officials have worked on fuel management and fire breaks to slow the spread of flames. A flare-up just last month burned about 1,300 acres, the mayor said.
"It's just a reminder to us that we can't get complacent, we have to stay on our toes to make sure everyone is safe," Lee said. "We just got to have everybody pray for rain in this area, we're in desperate need of it. And we just appreciate the firefighters."