Georgia's Okefenokee fire: Warnings of possible evacuations

AP News
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Posted: Apr 17, 2017 1:03 PM

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia residents on the western edge of the Okefenokee Swamp have been warned to prepare for potential evacuations from an approaching wildfire that has burned more than 30 square miles (80 square kilometers) of public lands nearby.

A lightning strike has been blamed for sparking the fire April 6 inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near the Georgia-Florida state line. Leland Bass, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said Monday dry and windy weather caused the blaze to more than double in size last weekend.

The 184 firefighters assigned to the wildfire so far have managed to keep most of the wildfire within the Okefenokee refuge and the neighboring Osceola National Forest and John M. Bethea State Forest in Florida.

But the fire's rapid weekend expansion brought it within about 7 miles (11 kilometers) of the tiny Georgia community of Fargo, on the Okefenokee's western boundary, Bass said.

Emergency responders went door-to-door Saturday and Sunday to warn residents of some 23 homes nearest the swamp to pack bags in case evacuations orders become necessary, said Will Joyce, emergency management director for Clinch County.

"What we're telling our residents here in Fargo is to be prepared, don't let your guard down," Joyce said, calling that a precautionary step.

Wildland firefighters with bulldozers have been clearing vegetation from fire breaks maintained around the Okefenokee refuge perimeter, which in places are 40 feet wide. Bass said flames managed to cross one highway onto private land at the refuge's southwest corner over the weekend, but only a small area burned outside the refuge.

Naturally occurring fire is needed periodically inside the vast 635 square mile (1645 square kilometer) refugee. That keeps the Okefenokee swamp from becoming overgrown and eventually converting to uplands. Fire crews have been focused on keeping the flames from spreading to private land.

Large wildfires in the refuge burned close to Fargo and surrounding Clinch County in 2007 and 2011, but no homes or businesses burned.

"Nobody's in a panic," said Lisa Johnson, the Fargo city clerk. "Thankfully they've been here, done this. But one thing we all know about fire in swamp is each one has its own personality."