An alligator approaches flames at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia. "Since fire is common in the swamp, impacts to most wildlife habitat within the refuge are minor," says refuge manager Curt McCasland. (Jessica Bowen/USFWS)
When an April 28 lightning strike sparked what would become the 302,000-acre Honey Prairie Fire at and near Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, refuge manager Curt McCasland was new to the job and to the Southeast Region. A 13-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veteran, he had moved east from a similar job at Cabeza Prieta Refuge in Arizona less than seven months earlier. Here are excerpts from a recent Refuge Update interview with McCasland.
Q. How did the fact that you were new to Okefenokee Refuge affect your ability to oversee the management of the fire, especially in the first few days?
A. Given the fact that the refuge staff, our state partners in Florida and Georgia, and the Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners (GOAL) have been preparing for this event since 2007after the Big Turnaround Fireit was fairly easy to pick up the ball and run. We began by implementing a strategy we had developed this January after reviewing the After Action Review of the 2007 fire. I am blessed to be surrounded by a very strong staff that has a lot of experience with fires in the swamp. In addition, [former Okefenokee Refuge managers] Skippy Reeves and George Constantino both made themselves available for support and discussion, as did staff from the Georgia Forestry Commission, Florida Division of Forestry, Osceola National Forest. I am surrounded by knowledgeable, dedicated folks, so I did not have to reinvent the wheel. I just needed to work from past successes to try to make a very effective and efficient process continue to work. The regional fire staff also provided invaluable support. I truly am humbled by the selfless nature of our refuge staff, our state partners and our neighbors.
Q. How does managing a fire in a Georgia swamp differ from managing a fire at your most recent previous station, Cabeza Prieta Refuge, in the Arizona desert?
A. Fires were infrequent at Cabeza Prieta. Before 2005, our largest was about five acres; it was started by a family that was being smuggled into the United States and became lost. The family kept lighting fires in hopes of being spotted. It took three days to get five acres burned. In 2005, we had a very wet winter and we dealt with several fires that ranged from 10,000 acres to 50,000 acres on and off the refuge. These were relatively short fires that burned very quickly, then went out. The fires at Okefenokee can last several months and possibly longer; tropical storms typically extinguish them. Soils within the refuge are primarily peat, so they can burn through an area and, after a few weeks, re-burn as the peat dries out. Ive learned that managing a fire in the swamp is like running a marathon; you have to pace yourself and make sure everybody else is doing the same.
Q. What damage did the fire do to Okefenokee Refuge?
A. The fires have burned more than 300,000 acres, the overwhelming majority within the refuge. From the beginning, our objectives have been to ensure firefighter safety, keep the fire within the swamp, and protect
private timber lands, railroads and the communities surrounding the refuge.
I am truly amazed by and appreciative of the cooperative relationship that exists with our neighbors. We manage a fire-adapted system where large fires occur every few years. The fact that the private timber landowners tolerate and accept our strategy of allowing fire to burn within the refuge is an important relationship. Providing our neighbors with updated maps, information and our strategies are important components of maintaining this positive relationship.
Since fire is common in the swamp, impacts to most wildlife habitat within the refuge are minor. This lack of impact is a product of the hard work and dedication of our staff. We have a long history of prescribed fire within our refuge uplands. This has resulted in the survival of our upland longleaf pine forest. Shrub scrub habitats are extremely fire adapted.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the swamp is many of the areas that burned in May and June appear not to have burned. However, we lost the 1.25-mile boardwalk and observation tower at Owls Roost that were used extensively by visitors at our eastern entrance. Picnic shelters, rest rooms and canoe trails also were damaged by the fire. We are eager to start rebuilding the boardwalk and restoring the trails.
Q. What benefit do you and your staff expect the fire to provide to the refuge habitat over the short term and long term?
A. Much of the shrub scrub habitat (especially in the southern portion of the refuge) burned extensively in 2002, 2007 and now. This recovers very quickly and is ready to reignite during the next dry period. Our upland habitats composed of longleaf pine are managed with prescribed fire. Although we do lose individual trees during these events, our dedicated staff have been managing these uplands for over 30 years and the uplands can withstand the effects of fire. Our hardwood stands are a concern. We have had two large fires occur in just four years. The fire does not run into the crowns, but it burns the peat and organic material at the trees base, causing them to fall during wind events. Fire continues to burn through these areas as we speak. It will be interesting to see how these hardwood stands recover.
The fire at and near Okefenokee Refuge, known as the Honey Prairie Fire, has burned more than 300,000 acres. It destroyed the popular 1.25-mile boardwalk near the east entrance. (Sara Aicher/USFWS)
Q. If you were to give words of advice to any other recently appointed refuge manager whose refuge ignites into a major fire before he or she has barely settled into the new job, what would that advice be?
A. I should point out that I was here for seven months prior to the start of the fire. My first day at work, Mike Housh, our fire management officer, had informed me that the swamp water level was lower than prior to the start of the Big Turnaround/Bugaboo Fire that burned virtually the entire refuge. Planning for a potential fire was ongoing prior to my arrival. The Georgia Forestry Commission had been implementing a fuel-reduction project around the perimeter of the swamp; our staff had been working on ensuring equipment and infrastructure, such as our roads and bridges, were prepared for fire. We have been actively conducting prescribed fires around important resources, such as the [100-plus-year-old] Chesser Homestead and our shop area. We also developed lists of what worked well and didnt work so well in the 2007 fire and others. One of the most important things we did was conduct the review of the After Action Review with our partners and incident commanders of all incident management teams in the region. This was invaluable. I guess my advice is to be as proactive as possible to ensure staff, partners and neighbors are actively engaged and working together prior to having smoke in the air.