FOLKSTON — A wildfire has consumed more than 8,400 acres in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and two connecting forests in Florida. Unlike previous fires in the swamp, smoke from the blaze is not expected to impact Coastal Georgia.
But smoke from what has been named the West Mims Fire forced the closure of Ga. Highway 94/Fla. Highway 2 for two days earlier this week. The highway, which links St. George to Homerville, reopened Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. until further notice.
Susie Heisey, a spokesperson at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, said the fire, sparked by lightning, is burning in the south end of the swamp, as well as in John M. Bethea State Forest and Osceola National Forest in Florida.
An estimated 110 firefighters throughout the Southeast have been assigned to the fire. Agencies include Georgia Forestry Commission, Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners (GOAL), Florida Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.
Smoke from the fire is currently blowing into the interior of the 407,000-acre swamp and in the Homerville area. Heisley said Coastal Georgia should not see any smoke anytime soon.
“We’re looking good the next couple of days with wind direction,” she said. “Right now, the prevailing winds are pushing the smoke into the swamp.”
It could be a different story if the winds change direction and push the fire and smoke north and into the wilderness interior of the swamp, though Heisey said there are pockets of water in the swamp that would slow down or stop a fire.
Prescribed burns have also been conducted in the area, which Heisey credited for minimizing the impact of the current blaze.
The swamp and forests are fire-dependent ecosystems inaccessible to heavy equipment. Because the fire is in wilderness areas, the policy is to let it burn and have crews cutting fire lines and waiting for the flames to threaten to escape containment.
The fire is moving to the north and west in a part of the swamp that burned in a 2011 wildfire. No private property is currently being threatened. The closest flames are about one mile from any private property. Heisey said refuge officials were not surprised about the wildfire because of the dry conditions.
All refuge entrances remain open and visitors are still allowed to spend the day and camp overnight at Stephen C. Foster State Park, she said. But a burn ban has been imposed until further notice within the boundaries of the refuge and state park. This includes fires in designated camp sites and charcoal grills.
“We don’t know what this fire has in store for us,” she said. “We’ll try to do the best we can.”