FOLKSTON, Ga. - Forced to close nearly six weeks ago by a vast wildfire that continues to burn, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is ready to allow visitors to return to parts of the nature preserve, refuge rangers said Friday.
The refuge is scheduled to open just before sunrise today for the first time since June 13, when its entire 402,000 acres were closed to the public as the Honey Prairie fire spread rapidly within the refuge boundaries near the Georgia-Florida line.
Art Webster, supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee refuge, said Friday most hiking trails and one 2-mile canal for canoeing had been deemed safe for visitors after firefighters cleared them of fallen trees and scanned the areas to make sure there were no smoldering hot spots from the fire.
"We've been waiting a long time," Webster said. "This will give people a chance to get out there and see how the swamp reacted to the fire and how it's recovering."
The popular swamp boardwalk will remain off-limits because much of it was destroyed by the fire and must be rebuilt.
Staying overnight won't be allowed yet either, Webster said, as many of the refuge's camping shelters were damaged as well.
About 360 firefighters continue to battle the fire that's burned nearly 473 square miles, mostly inside the refuge, since it was kindled by a lightning strike April 28.
Firefighter spokesman Mark Wurdeman said Friday most of the active flame is burning in remote parts of the swamp's northwestern corner.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Forestry Commission is close to containing two large fires outside the swamp - the Sweat Farm Again fire near Waycross and the Racepond fire northeast of the Okefenokee.
Forestry spokeswoman Wendy Burnett said Friday firefighters hope to declare the fires contained next week.