Massive GA wildfire 'long-term battle'

More than 89,000 acres burned, fire 75 percent contained.

BY P.J. HELLER | WAYCROSS, Ga. | May 1, 2007

Georgia Forestry Commission firefighter and public information officer Bryon Haire inspects fire line near Okefenokee Swamp.

More than 800 firefighters battled a massive wildfire in southeast Georgia for a 16th day on Tuesday. Officials were also investigating at least six other area fires suspected to be arson.

The largest of the wildfires in Ware County had consumed more than 89,000 acres approximately 139 square miles - of forest and swamp land as of Tuesday night.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered in a rural area of Charlton County with suggested evacuations within a five-mile radius outside that location. Some 75 homes were threatened, officials said.

The Ware County fire was about 75 percent contained as of late Tuesday night but officials cautioned the public that the effort to put out the flames was a "long-term battle."

"It's going to take a while," said spokesman Mike King of the Charlton County Sheriff's Department.

The fire in the drought-stricken state was burning through tinder-dry land. Weather conditions continued to be unfavorable, with low humidity and temperatures in the 90s. Winds were lighter than in previous days. A slight chance of rain was forecast for Friday night and Saturday night.

"It's not looking good," King said of the forecast. "The weather is basically going to determine the longevity of this thing. We just have to go from there."

Containment, originally estimated to occur Monday, has been pushed back to May 15. The cost of battling the inferno so far was estimated at $18 million. The fire has burned at least 21 homes, 18 of them in Ware County and three in Atkinson County, King said. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.

Other fires were burning in neighboring Brantley, Charlton and Atkinson counties. Officials said some fires in Charlton and Ware counties were suspicious and may have been deliberately set. Arson investigations were ordered. King said the figure of 87,000 acres burned in Ware County included acreage blackened in Charlton County.

The Atkinson County fire, about 20 miles west of the main blaze, had grown to 5,000 acres. It was in the Roundabout Swamp, a peat bog which can burn deep into the ground making it difficult to extinguish.

Initial published reports said all state roads in Atkinson County were closed Tuesday, as were schools. That information was erroneous King said, noting that only a portion of U.S. 82 would be closed Tuesday night and that schools were open. The closures were reported all day on the Joint Information Center's Web site as well as published and broadcast elsewhere.

The Joint Information Center said the fires were unrelated "but are further evidence of the extreme drought conditions in Georgia right now."

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue visited the area Tuesday afternoon and met with officials from the Georgia Forestry Commission and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Several roads remained closed, including a 16-mile stretch of U.S. 1 between Ware and Charlton counties. Several other roads in Ware, Brantley and Charlton counties were also closed.

School officials in Ware County said schools would be closed Wednesday. In Pierce County, school openings were to be delayed by one hour on Wednesday and Thursday; Friday was a scheduled holiday for students. Public schools in Coffee County, as well as South Georgia College in Douglas, were also scheduled to be closed Wednesday due to heavy smoke and limited visibility.

Smoke from the fires has drifted as far south as central Florida, including the Orlando area, the National Weather Service reported. Officials warned people with respiratory ailments to remain indoors.

The Ware County fire was sparked April 16 when a tree fell on a power line. Since then, the fire has raged and burned into the Okefenokee Swamp, where it has charred at least 17,000 acres. Officials said the swamp was a fire-dependent ecosystem and would ultimately benefit from the fire there.

The Kneeknocker fire in Brantley County has burned 1,400 acres and was 50 percent contained. Two smaller fires were also burning in the county.

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Related Links:

Georgia Forestry Commission

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Ware County Public Schools


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