The big West Mims Fire burned through less than 500 additional acres since Tuesday, but that could change in the coming days as conditions are predicted to worsen, officials said.
At least there will be more firefighters to respond to any runs the fire makes as 65 more have been added bringing the total to 330, West Mims Fire officials said from the incident command center in Fargo, Ga. The crews are using six helicopters, 28 wildland fire engines, five bulldozers and 36 tractor plows, fire information officers said in a Wednesday morning update.
Crews were plowing breaks and setting strategic burns to the west and north of the fire through Tuesday night, both inside and outside Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, to stop the fire short or Cypress Creek.
“They got that whole thing done,” Leland Bass, a fire information officer from the Georgia Forestry Commission, said of the fire break preparation.
But Wednesday’s humidity was lower than Tuesday’s, and winds up to 14 mph were expected in the afternoon, he said.
Bass said that a look at the smoke carries a message of increased activity. “The smoke has starting going straight up. That lets the flames stand up. You can imagine what it will do when it gets some wind behind it,” Bass said.
The fire crews are getting into position with tractor plows and fire engines, he said.
“They’re out there. They’re ready. They’re rested,” Bass said. “It’s going to be a busy evening, I imagine.”
The most active time was expected to fall between 1 and 5 p.m., he said.
Some structure preparation has already been done on private property and at Stephen C. Foster State Park north and west of the fire. Additional work is being done including on the east side of the 400,000-acre wildlife refuge.
Crews have gone to interior islands to reduce the risk to endangered red cockaded woodpecker habitat and structures will also be prepared at the refuge’s main entrance off Georgia 121 south of Folkston, the update said.
Work has also been done to prevent damage to archeological resources on Billy’s Island near Stephen Foster including a cemetery and old tanks at the Billys Island Camp left from when cypress was being logged.
The fire has consistently moved west and north since it was ignited April 6 by lighting, but changes could come, said Susan Heisey, supervisory ranger at the refuge.
“We’re preparing structures on the east side because we’re expecting a change in the wind direction,” Heisey said. “There are some pretty critical fire days coming up.”
Among the structures being protected are the historic home and farm buildings on Chesser Island and other structures south of the Suwannee Canal, she said.
Heisey said the canal still has water, but it’s dropping all over the swamp. As of Wednesday, the water level on the east side was 119.4 feet above sea level, just under the 120-foot baseline, she said. On the west, the water level was at 113.61 feet compared to a baseline of 114.
“We’re below average water levels on both sides of the swamp,” she said.
The swamp has different water levels because it is divided by a low ridge and it is the source of two rivers, the Suwannee which flows into the Gulf of Mexico and the St. Marys which flows into the Atlantic.
“There are still boat tours going on out there. There is potential for it to change rapidly,” Heisey said.
The swamp hadn’t gotten any measurable rain in 13 days. Thunderstorms are predicted this weekend, but that’s not always good news.
“The last rain we had was a thunderstorm,” Heisey said. “That started the fire.”
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405