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Firefighter in the brush at Okefenokee NWR. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Fencing fire

Service combats West Mims blaze

Fargo, Georgia – Smoke rose, a boiling, black reminder that fire stalked the hammocks and islands. It had consumed thousands of acres, and was just getting started.

Before it’s finished, the West Mims fire will have burned a lot more.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is aflame. As of May 1, fire had burned more than 100,000 acres. Firefighters from across the country have come to the refuge, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). They’ll likely be at the refuge, close to the Georgia-Florida line, for months.

The firefighters are using bulldozers to cut “fire breaks,” wide swaths of bare earth where flames cannot burn. They’re relying on helicopters to dump water along selected spots to keep the fire from crossing roads.

They’re also fighting fire with fire, burning some areas on the refuge’s edges to keep the larger fires from reaching homes and businesses.

The fire crew sets a small blaze to prevent the larger fire from reaching private lands. Video by Mark Davis, USFWS. Download the video.

It is a long, hot business. Fire officials say the swamp could burn until late fall. It depends on the wind, the rain and other vagaries of nature.

The outcome also rests on the shoulders of more than 500 firefighters working this blaze, the largest at the refuge since a 2011 conflagration burned more than 300,000 acres. They’ve come from as far away as Arizona to stand in the hot, flat reaches of South Georgia and confront an implacable foe.

Beginning to move

A male refuge manager with peppery hair poses for a photo in his office.
Michael Lusk, manager, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

This blaze, like most here, began with a lightning bolt. Michael Lusk remembers.

“It came to earth April 6,” said Lusk, a longtime Service employee who manages the 407,000-acre refuge. It struck just west of Mims, an upland tract in south-central Okefenokee. A few flames licked dry vegetation, and grew. Motorists on a Florida highway saw smoke and notified authorities.

Two days later, Lusk took a helicopter ride to assess what the refuge faced. The blaze had encompassed about 70 acres. An easterly wind fanned it, and the flames moved west.

“We could see it was beginning to move and pick up,” said Lusk.

As the flames grew, so did the number of firefighters tapped to bring their gear to coastal Georgia. Federal and state officials dispatched bulldozers and other heavy equipment to the refuge. Others sent helicopters.

Authorities set up a command post in Fargo, on the refuge’s western edge, then established a secondary post near Folkston, on the refuge’s eastern border. Each site hosts daily briefings where workers get the latest: spots where the flames are a threat, places where they are not, which way the wind’s blowing.

“It’s been an amazing thing to see,” Lusk said.

Frequent fires

In some respects, the blaze is hardly news. Okefenokee has been catching on fire for as long as it’s been a swamp. And fire can be good: flames burn undergrowth away, allowing trees to grow and thrive. That provides a habitat for countless creatures, including some at-risk and others under federal protection.

The swamp’s residents – alligators, bears, deer, an array of birds, reptiles and more – know how to survive a fire, said Josh O’Connor, a Service fire specialist. Gators burrow into the mud. Deer and bear run. Birds take wing. Various other creatures dive into burrows, find mud or somehow protect themselves against the approaching flames.

“Because they’re living in an environment with frequent fires, they’ve learned how to adapt,” O’Connor said. “We humans have not.”

On a recent afternoon, he drove a heavy Ford pickup along a state highway bisecting part of the refuge. In the distance, white smoke billowed in the sky. Closer by, six bulldozers were parked end-to-end, their blades shiny in the sun. They stood by to cut more fire breaks.

A bright-yellow helicopter thumped overhead. From it dangled a flexible tube. The machine, a Sikorsky, flew parallel to a state highway where a line of pine trees and brush formed a shaggy wall. Reaching a prearranged target, the chopper’s pilot released water. It spewed out in a dirty cascade – the helicopter had just sucked the water from a nearby pond, and got some mud in the process – that landed on dry timber and brush. The chopper rose into the smoke, turned and headed back toward the pond. It passed a second helicopter headed in the opposite direction.

A helicopter drops water on private lands along GA Highway 177. Video by Mark Davis, USFWS. Download the video.

In the woods was a handful of firefighters. Their clothes were grimy, their faces streaked with soot. Their sunglasses reflected the sky, the trees, the earth. They waded into brush, setting fires with canisters. The flames trailed them in red streams.

“That sort of work,” O’Connor said, “will continue as long as the West Mims fire pushes toward the boundaries of the Okefenokee NWR.”

The helicopter’s shadow passed over the firefighters, but they paid it no mind. They had hotter things to handle.

Check out the photo album for the West Mims fire.

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