Big storms give crews battling West Mims fire respite

Rain only temporary fix; peat still smoldering underground

FARGO, Ga. – The severe weather conditions that blanketed Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia this week provided some relief for fire crews battling the enormous West Mims Fire that spilled out of the Okefenokee Swamp.

The West Mims Fire has scorched more than 235 square miles -- nearly six times the size of Disney World -- since it was started by a lightning strike April 6.

Heavy rain poured over the fire Tuesday and Wednesday, serving as a temporary fix that gave fire crews a chance to catch their breath and recharge both physically and mentally. 

Out-of-state firefighters said they won’t become complacent during the temporary reprieve. 

"It's kind of tough. It takes a few days to get acclimated, but you get used to it," said Robert Vigil, a firefighter from Colorado who's been working the West Mims Fire since last week. "We got a little dog and I miss her. But my two little kids coming home from school and they come running up -- it's what I miss." 

Firefighter Eric Haberin arrived from Indiana nearly two weeks ago. He told News4Jax Wednesday that it was initially tough leaving home.

"It gets a little easier after a while, but you still get those pains of missing family, missing my girlfriend, missing my dog," Haberin said. "But you know you're doing the right thing."

On Thursday, the nearly 800 firefighters from all over the country picked up where they left off before the two-day rain event, which helped to suppress hot spots, but wasn't enough to fully contain the wildfire. 

Annaleasa Winter, with the Florida Forestry Service, said that although the rain helps, there is peat burning 12 inches or more underground, so even several inches of rain is not enough to saturate all the way down.

“We've got to bring those water tables back up to where they normally are and that's just going to take some time,” Winter said. “We're going to need more rain.”

A handful of incident meteorologists from the National Weather Service are assigned specifically to monitor the weather conditions affecting the West Mims Fire. They work inside a mobile command center in Fargo, Georgia, and provide real-time information to firefighters on the ground, similar to the way military intelligence provides information for troops on the battlefield. Meteorologist Joe Goudsward reiterated that Wednesday's storms were much needed.

"It did help suppress the fire some more. We have been seeing hot sports with the fire. The precipitation will keep those hot spots in check," Goudsward said. 

But he said it would take much more rain to extinguish the fire. 

"We would need a rain with a name, some type of tropical system or low-pressure system moving up the coast, something that's going to produce 6 to 8 inches of rain or more," Goudsward said. "That's how much we're down in this particular area." 

And there's another problem the meteorologists will be monitoring. 

"We're going into a warming and drying trend starting tomorrow. So those fine fuels that carry fire are going to dry out fairly rapidly," Goudsward said, adding when that happens, the fire will have fuel to keep it burning.

According to the West Mims incident team, the entire fire received at least 1½ inch of rain Wednesday, but the rain only provided a lull in fire activity. 

"The fire will still be burning deep underground," said the incident fire behavior analyst. 

As of Thursday, the West Mims Fire covers 152,478 acres and is 65 percent contained. Fire officials still expect the fire to burn until November.

Bradford County lifts burn ban

Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith said Wednesday that the county's burn ban was lifted because of the significant amount of rainfall.  

Smith advised people to remain cautious while conducting any open burning.

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