Six weeks later, Georgia fires still raging
The state's inability to keep the fires from rushing out of the Okefenokee Swamp is kindling a debate over lagging forestry budgets.
Firebreaks plowed by bulldozers into the soil can't slow the stampede of flames through the pine stands. At times, whirling "fire tornadoes" appear above the towering crowns, forcing smokechasers to run for their lives.Skip to next paragraph
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Six weeks after they first flared, the massive forest fires dogging south Georgia and north Florida remain largely out of control.
"It's frustrating, to say the least, that we can't get our hands around it," says Kym Stephens, a Georgia Forestry Commission firefighter.
Wildland firefighters in the South extinguish more wildfires – 45,000 a year – than any other region. In that light, the demoralizing effect that the Okefenokee Swamp fires are having on veteran firefighters is drawing attention beyond these pine plantations.
The state's inability to keep the fire from rushing out of the swamp and into the pine lands is kindling a debate over lagging forestry budgets, the impact of climate change on fire-suppression tactics, and the trend of timber companies divesting from the woods, taking manpower and equipment with them.
"This fire will have a national effect on how we look at fire behavior, how we account for our forestry budgets, as well as the pure economic effect it will have for a long time in this region," says Robert Farris, interim director of the Georgia Forestry Commission in Dry Branch.
Sparked in mid-April by a combination of downed wires and lightning, the amalgam of fires now known as the Georgia Bay Complex – Bugaboo Scrub, Sweat Farm, Big Turnaround, and Kneeknocker – has already burned more than a half-million acres, exceeding the enormous fires that burst through the region in 1953 and 1954. The latest fires were declared a federal disaster April 17, entitling the state to federal aid.
In an average year, wildfires burn 8,000 acres in Georgia; the Sweat Farm fire alone burned 10,000 acres in one night last week.
Clapboard forest cabins and brick ranch homes are being evacuated daily; 21 homes have burned down. The smoke has periodically shut down entire interstates. And on windy days, the plume has traveled miles, obscuring city skylines as far away as Mississippi and North Carolina. Seven firefighters have been injured since the fires first broke out.
The fires' erratic behavior has primarily been caused by an extreme drought, not seen in these parts in 50 years. Meanwhile, atmospheric inversions have pushed smoke close to the ground, hampering surveillance and creating confusion for firefighters. An unusually low jet stream is carrying embers up to two miles ahead, and sometimes to the flanks, of the fire. Smoke plumes reaching 30,000 feet have suddenly collapsed, "blowing out" the fire in all directions.
"Georgia is probably setting some all-time record highs on the amount of energy that can be released from these fuels, and that's not good," says Gary Curcio, a fire behavior analyst with the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources.
Forestry officials here suggest that lagging resources have also contributed to the difficulty in extinguishing the blaze.