FOLKSTON, Ga. – A wildfire on public lands near the Georgia-Florida state line has burned more than 90 square miles as winds spread the flames through dry areas of the Okefenokee Swamp and the neighboring Osceola National Forest and John M. Bethea State Forest in Florida.
The fire, which began after a lightning strike on April 6, is only 8 percent contained.
The Georgia Forestry Commission Incident Management Team said that the overall area of the blaze grew more than 22 percent between Monday and Tuesday. So far, nearly all of the burned acreage has been confined to national and state land.
Between Georgia Forestry, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Forest Service and U.S. Forest Service, 444 personnel are assigned to this incident, with equipment including eight helicopters, 45 wildland fire engines, 34 tractor plows and seven bulldozers.
The National Weather Service said Tuesday that winds were pushing smoke and falling ash into communities a few miles east of the Okefenokee refuge including Folkston, Georgia, and Hilliard, Florida.
"It's hard to breathe," Hilliard resident Steve Harrell said Monday. "It's just way too much smoke in here."
Firefighters said it could burn for six months unless heavy rains snuff out the flames sooner.
"We're waiting for a large storm event," said Susan Granbery of the Georgia Forestry Commission. "A major rain event will be what it takes to put the fire out. They're estimating that is generally sometime between June and November."
The Weather Authority's Mark Collins said that it will likely get worse before it gets better.
"Sunday's rain did nothing to suppress the fires in the swamp," Collins said. "Winds have increased the spread and size of the fire growth to the north. Winds blowing up to 5,000 feet have led to a column of smoke that could be visible up to 25 miles away.
A National Weather Service meteorologist is on scene with the firefighters and will issue a special weather advisory if smoke becomes hazardous in the more populated areas of Jacksonville. The NWS said that is likely by Tuesday morning.
The smoke can cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing for healthy people. People with breathing problems are urged to stay indoors.
"It just feels like somebody's sitting on your chest. It's hard to breathe and there's no way to get away from it," Harrell said.
Florida State Road 2/Georgia State Road 94 will close at 10 p.m. nightly from the agricultural check station at the Georgia-Florida line to U.S. 441 in Fargo. The road will reopen based on visibility each morning. Temporary road closures will occur as needed due to smoke or equipment.
Within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the Wilderness Canoe Trail overnight stops, Chesser Island Boardwalk, Chesser Island Homestead, Stephen C. Foster State Park, Suwannee River Sill and the Pocket are all closed.
Burn bans remain in place for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Baker, Nassau and Union counties in Florida.
Authorities said naturally occurring fire is needed periodically to keep the swamp healthy. Otherwise it would become overgrown and eventually convert to dry uplands.
That means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, prefers to let the fire burn within the Okefenokee's boundaries while firefighters use bulldozers to fortify fire breaks along the refuge perimeter to keep flames from spreading to private land. Meanwhile, sheets of fire-resistant wrap and sprinkler systems have been used to protect a historic homestead, boardwalks and campsites inside the refuge.
Granbery said Monday that the fire still posed no immediate threat to residents living just outside the swamp. But residents of tiny Fargo, where about 320 people live on the refuge's western edge, and in a rural stretch of Charlton County near its eastern border have been urged to be ready if evacuations become necessary.
Shawn Boatright, county administrator for Charlton County, said officials spent the weekend going door-to-door to warn residents nearest the swamp. There was no imminent fire threat Monday, but parts of the county were smothered in smoke.
"Right now, visibility is almost minimal due to the smoke from the fire," Boatright said. "I can smell the smoke here in my building just from people opening up the doors."
Extremely dry conditions aren't helping to slow the fire's progress. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the Okefenokee refuge is suffering from moderate to severe drought. Scattered thunderstorms crossing southeast Georgia on Sunday and Monday morning failed to dump any significant rain.
Wildfires have burned for extended periods inside the Okefenokee refuge before. Another fire started by lightning in April 2011 burned and smoldered for nearly a full year. It charred about 480 square miles before authorities declared it extinguished.