Vast Ga. wildfire almost out after days of soaking rain

The team fighting the blaze now considers it 90 percent contained


Associated Press

SAVANNAH, Ga. — A wildfire that burned vast acreage and at one point threatened hundreds of homes near the Georgia-Florida state line has been nearly extinguished after steady rains soaked the Okefenokee Swamp over the past week.

The team fighting the blaze now considers it 90-percent contained and the flames that burned nearly 240 square miles (620 sq. kilometers) 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," Heisey, a spokeswoman for the firefighting team, said Monday, 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 (20 centimeters) of rain fell over parts of the Okefenokee refuge last week. Heisey said the east side of the refuge got an additional 2 inches (5 centimeters) Sunday and rain continued to fall Monday, with forecasts calling for more thunderstorms in the coming days.

"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.

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