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.

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.

Timber companies have begun to outsource plantation management, reducing the number of privately owned firefighting equipment from 180 to 20 in the past three years. That leaves the state with an increased responsibility to protect corporately owned lands, which bring in about $560 million in tax revenue each year.

Moreover, a Georgia State University study from 2003 showed that, when adjusting for inflation (but not for drought), the Georgia Forestry Commission should be receiving more than $60 million a year to prevent and fight fires. Instead, it will receive $42 million if Gov. Sonny Perdue signs next year's budget, a 9 percent increase over the previous year. In comparison, the south Georgia fires are expected to cost $42 million by the time they're put out. The US government will pay 75 percent of the firefighting costs.

The commission has lost 207 rangers, mostly to attrition, in the past 16 years. This week, local milk trucks were hauling water to holding ponds, and prison inmate fire departments were carrying out "structure protection" to save homes. While overall federal funding for state fire planning efforts has increased since the establishment of the National Fire Plan in 2000, money toward clearing brush and other fire mitigation measures on non-government lands has decreased by $20 million a year since 2004. That tends to affect Southern states like Georgia especially, experts say, since more than 90 percent of wildfires here occur on private pine plantations.

"People are desperately trying to get state and federal funding restored so we can better manage these forests and reduce the incidence of these catastrophic fires," says Steve Kline, a policy analyst with the National Association of State Foresters in Washington.

Even as their budgets have been stagnant, forestry managers have been maximizing what they have on hand.

But "there's a point where weather, temperature, wind, and humidity come together to create a catastrophic fire season where even a fairly well-prepared [agency] just cannot overcome forces that are so powerful at one place at one time to be overwhelming," says Mike Countess, a policy analyst with the Southern Group of State Foresters in Atlanta.

Morale has been a problem, too, because Forestry Commission firefighters earn vacation days instead of overtime pay. Many firefighters have accrued hundreds of hours in time off that they will probably not be able to take because of a busy fire season and staff shortages.

One of the Commission's biggest supporters in the legislature, state Rep. Carl Rogers, wasn't aware of the manpower shortages until he read about them in the newspaper. "They've never mentioned to me that they needed more personnel, and now they do because of what's going on," he says.

At a staging area close to where the fire made a "run" Sunday, firefighters face their own vulnerabilities as the fire advances.

"We can't ring the head of this thing," says Chris Brooks of Doe Run, Ga., a veteran dozer-operator. "Maybe they'll see the smoke in Atlanta and remember that we're out here."

Mr. Brooks may not have to wait long for the fires to get more attention. President Bush was scheduled to be briefed on the fire situation by Georgia and Florida forestry officials while in Brunswick, Ga., Tuesday.

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