SAVANNAH, Ga. – A vast wildfire near the Georgia-Florida state line has sputtered and stalled for days after modest rainfall slowed the once-raging blaze, giving firefighters their best chance yet to stop the flames from advancing near the southern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.
The multi-agency team fighting the fire said Friday the total burned area stood at 238 square miles (616 sq. kilometers) — a figure that had barely budged since Sunday. That's after 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) of rainfall hit the fire last weekend, slowing its burn rate to a crawl, at least temporarily.
"We're feeling very fortunate," said Susan Heisey, supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and a spokeswoman for the firefighting team. "The rain obviously did help to dampen and minimize the fire activity. But as the fuels continue to dry, they are seeing smoke and increased fire activity each afternoon."
The fire was considered 60 percent contained Friday evening, according to a news release from the firefighting team, compared with just 17 percent last Sunday. Heisey said the containment was greatest along the fire's southern perimeter, where fighters had focused their efforts to spare small communities near the swamp's edge.
A lightning strike sparked the fire April 6 inside the Okefenokee refuge, where drought conditions and gusty winds caused the flames to spread rapidly. While more than three-fourths of the charred acreage is undeveloped public land, flames escaped the southeast corner of the swamp May 6 and raged toward the small Georgia communities of St. George and Moniac. Emergency officials ordered more than 2,000 residents to evacuate.
Hundreds of firefighters kept any homes from burning in the week before rain arrived May 13.
James Burnsed and his family packed up their belongings and then nervously watched the approaching flames through a haze of smoke for about a week from their home in tiny Moniac. On Friday, Burnsed said, the air was mostly clear and the immediate danger was past.
"We still smell the smoke, depending on the wind," Burnsed said. "But, oh man, it's a great relief."
Shawn Boatright, administrator for surrounding Charlton County, on the swamp's eastern edge, said residents are still being warned to stay prepared in case future evacuations are needed.
More than 1,000 firefighters and support personnel took advantage of the lull in fire growth. Using infrared sensors to detect smoldering patches near the fire's edge, crews attacked those hotspots by churning up the soil and dousing them with water.
Those efforts created even deeper containment lines to hold back the fire if it tries to spread farther south, Heisey said.
Meanwhile, more rain could be on the way. The National Weather Service forecast a chance of rain and thunderstorms from Saturday through Wednesday. If storms bring more lightning than rain, however, they could ignite more fires.
Smoke continued to rise Friday from the interior of the Okefenokee refuge, where more than two-thirds of the swamp's vast acreage has yet to burn and holds plenty of dry vegetation to fuel more flames. Fire commanders have estimated the wildfire could keep burning until November.
"The thing to keep in mind is the overall water levels in the swamp are extremely low," Heisey said. "We have to keep vigilant and not get complacent."