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With wildfire 99% contained, Okefenokee turning green again

Days of heavy rains douse fire that burned 240 square miles since April

Recent rainfall is bringing up water levels and turning the swamp green again. (Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge photo via Facebook)
Recent rainfall is bringing up water levels and turning the swamp green again. (Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge photo via Facebook)

FOLKSTON, Ga. – A wildfire that scorched hundreds of acres and at one point threatened hundreds of homes near the Georgia-Florida state line has been almost completely contained after steady rains soaked the Okefenokee Swamp over the past week.

The team fighting the blaze now considers it 99 percent contained, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Division said. The flames that burned nearly 240 square miles since April have been reduced to scattered piles of smoldering debris from trees cut down in the fire area's southeast corner, said Susan Heisey, supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

"The water levels in the swamp are still below average, but the rains are really saturating the uplands," said Heisey, a spokeswoman for the firefighting team, adding that the potential for the fire to grow again in any serious way seemed extremely low. ''Just based on the predicted weather forecast for this week alone, I don't think there's any real potential for this to go anywhere."

The swamp was parched by drought when a lightning strike April 6 sparked a rapidly growing fire. More than three-fourths of the charred acreage was confined to undeveloped public land. However, more than 2,000 rural residents of neighboring Charlton County were ordered to evacuate after flames escaped the southeast corner of the swamp May 6.

Firefighters kept the flames at bay and no homes burned. Then the first rains fell, essentially stunting the fire's growth, May 13.

Fire commanders said in a news release that up to 8 inches of rain fell over parts of the Okefenokee refuge last week. Heisey said the east side of the refuge got an additional 2 inches last weekend and rain continued to fall this week, with forecasts calling for more thunderstorms.

"It's setting up to be a really good thing for the fire and we can let most of the resources go home," Heisey said.

The number of firefighters and support personnel assigned to the fire has dwindled from more than 800 a month ago to just 116 on Monday. Heisey said their main job now is to repair dirt roads and smooth out patches of dirt churned up by bulldozers plowing fire breaks when the blaze was still growing.

In early June, officials partially reopened the Wildlife Refuge near Folkson for visitors to access the swamp's waterways. Some parts of the refuge were still off limits due to remaining fire activity. Stephen Foster State Park is offering a 50 percent discount for camping and cabins for the rest of the month.