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Information iconGrant Lovato, a fire equipment operator from Louisiana, uses a backhoe to remove a tree that was blocking a public road at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

FWS crew gives state partners at Stephen C. Foster a lift speeding up its reopening

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia - Sometimes the best tool for the job is a large backhoe.

Bright yellow and unstoppable, the big John Deere machine was just part of the heavy equipment packed by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service task force deployed to help where needed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Comprised of 14 Service veterans from several Southeastern states, with a heavy Louisiana contingent, the team made it to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, just a couple of days after Irma had toppled trees and raised havoc with 60 mph winds.

One of their first stops was to help out a state partner, Georgia’s Stephen C. Foster State Park, adjacent to the refuge. A wind-toppled tree leaned precariously, caught against another tall tree, threatening a campground. (The campsite of course was empty, the park having been evacuated and closed.)

A yellow backhoe moves a large pine tree from a road.
Grant Lovato, a fire equipment operator from Louisiana, uses a backhoe to remove a tree that was blocking a public road at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“Their backhoe is a lot bigger than mine, so they were able to dig the base out, drag it out and remove it,” said park manager Brian Gray. “It was a great help and we’re very appreciative.”

“We helped them out and they help us out,” said Jon King, the task force’s supervisor. “They put us up for the night in some state park cabins. It’s a great partnership, working with state agencies.”

The team also spent Wednesday and part of Thursday at the wildlife refuge, removing trees that had blocked several public roads.

Okefenokee was a return engagement for several members of the task force, who are also qualified as fire fighters. In April and May of 2017, the West Mims fire in and around the refuge burned through more than 150 square miles of public land. More than 1,000 personnel battled that blaze, including King, who in his “day job” is a fire management officer at Southwest Louisiana Refuges Complex, and others on his team, including John Stewart Harrell and Grant Lovato.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is home to about 12,000 American alligators, a species that was once listed as endangered but is now flourishing due to the Endangered Species Act. Its more than 350,000 acres are also home to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, sandhill cranes and gopher tortoises, as well as more than 600 species of plants.

The Service task force does not travel lightly. After finishing up at Okefenokee on the Georgia-Florida state line, they formed a long caravan and headed down to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge next to Cape Canaveral on Thursday, the next stop on their tour. A dozen vehicles travelled single-file, including a truck hauling a Bobcat excavator, two pick-up trucks hauling boats, trailers full of chainsaws and equipment, and of course, the backhoe.

Contact

Phil Kloer, Public Affairs Specialist
philip_kloer@fws.gov, (404) 679-7299

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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