Open Spaces: Up in Flames: Wildfire on a Refuge

Up in Flames: Wildfire on a Refuge

By June 2011, more acres had burned from wildfires across the country than in all of 2010. The following is a look at one of those wildfires, still raging in Georgia at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. In the Southeast Region, 258 fires have started this year on nearly three dozen national wildlife refuges. A total of about 432,000 acres have burned, the vast majority in the Okefenokee.

It started with a bolt of lightning that hit the swamp at 9 a.m. on April 30. More than three months later, fire is still on the move in the water-starved Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. About three-quarters of the refuge have burned, totaling more than 300,000 acres.

An active fire.An active fire.  Image Credit: Howard McCullough

While afternoon thunderstorms have ignited some new fire starts near the refuge, the moisture is helping decrease new threats. Burning does continue in dry areas. Flames from the Honey Prairie Fire is also creeping and smoldering through the peat, or swampy vegetation. There is some re-burn potential, especially on the west side.  Seventy percent of the fire has been contained.

Flames burn slowly through the swamp vegetation.Flames burn slowly through the swamp vegetation. Image Credit: Howard McCullough

Firefighters are hopeful they’ll get some help from a tropical storm to finally douse the fire. But the most promising storm so far, named Emily, was downgraded Friday to a tropical cyclone depression while still in the Caribbean.

The last major fire in the Okefenokee refuge was the Big Turnaround Fire in 2007. At a cost of $30 million, it was the most expensive wildlife ever for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the largest outside Alaska.

Since then, refuge staff has teamed up with the Fire Management Team, the Georgia Forestry Commission, and the Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners (GOAL) to improve response. One helpful factor: nearby private timber owners accept the Service’s strategy to allow fire to burn on the refuge.

The Okefenokee is a fire-adapted ecosystem, with upland longleaf pine forests. Large fires are expected to occur every few years or so, and these fires actually contribute to the ecological health of the swamp. 

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Last updated: June 21, 2012