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Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is closed as crews battle the West Mims fire. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Keeping upbeat

Refuge manager monitors fire fight

Folkston, Georgia – If he needs a reminder of how to run a wildlife refuge – especially one that’s on fire – all Michael Lusk needs to do is look at the skull in his office.

That’s an alligator skull, and it came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. At one time, it was attached to a beast about 9 feet long. Propped in its gaping mouth is a narrow sign with a message:

Attitude is Everything

Lusk, the refuge’s manager, took a moment to smile at the toothy reminder to keep a positive outlook. A few miles away, crews battled fires that began in early April, and may not be extinguished for months.

“It’s perfect,” he said. “Alligators have attitude.”

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.

Lusk has an issue that won’t be solved without massive amounts of manpower, tons of machinery and some cooperation from the sky. Nearly 500 firefighters are working to contain the fire on the refuge close to the Georgia-Florida line. They’re using bulldozers, helicopters, airplanes and an array of smaller tools. They’re also watching the sky, hoping for some heaven-sent help.

Lusk, who’s been at the refuge since September 2013, is keeping a watch on it all – the arrival and departures of crews, the flow of equipment to the 407,000-acre tract, the costs of containing the fire.

He’s also relying on an array of other agencies, state as well as federal, to keep the flames from spreading to homes and businesses not far from the refuge. Joining them are private interests with a stake in the welfare of the refuge and the land around it.

So far, Lusk said, everything has gone well. He credits that to a fire-readiness plan earlier Service refuge managers created. When he came to South Georgia, Lusk said, the plan was in place.

“It was like I was given the keys to a Lamborghini and told, ‘Don’t wreck it.’”

He has not. Crews have kept the fires within the refuge’s boundaries, keeping them from hopping over roadways to private property.

Lusk, meantime, steals occasional glances at the skull in his office. He takes its message to heart.

Check out the photo album for the West Mims fire.

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