FOLKSTON, GA. | The big West Mims Fire in the Okefenokee Swamp has grown past 22,600 acres and residents on the east side are being told shifting winds could push the flames their way, the incident response team said.
Since it was started by lightning two weeks ago, the fire had moved consistently west and north toward Fargo, but some of the 356 personnel assigned to fire are preparing structures and fire breaks to the east as the wind is expected to shift.
To prepare residents for the change in conditions, public meetings will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday at St. George Elementary School auditorium, St. George, and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Charlton County Annex auditorium,Folkston.
Structure protection has begun at the eastern entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and Clinch and Charlton County emergency officials are keeping the public and residents advised of fire conditions and telling them to prepare to evacuate quickly.
The historic Chesser Island homestead on Swamp Island Drive closed at 4 p.m. Thursday and a team of about 16 Texas A&M Forest Service firefighters and others directed by John Johanson of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona wrapped the 90-year-old house in reinforced foil.
Tom and Iva Chesser reared nine children on the property before they moved out in 1958 and sold the property to the wildlife refuge in the early 1970s.
Johanson said he had wrapped structures “numerous times” and said, “It’s the equivalent of putting tin foil on a potato.”
The foil will help keep blowing embers from inside and under the house where they could ignite the unpainted heartpine wood.
The drawback, he said, is that if an ember does get through a gap it could burn undetected.
The house was wrapped for huge fires in 2007 and 2011, however, and came through unscathed.
Johanson told refuge supervisory ranger Susan Heisey, “I’ve wrapped a bunch of stuff. Been real successful but you never know.”
Given the historic nature of the house, firefighters used brads to tack the foil in place behind strips of wood rather than use staples. The brads should come out when the strips are pulled away.
Crews have been sprinkling the bare, sandy ground around the house for about four hours a day, but, Johanson said, “Honestly, I don’t think it’s made much difference.”
Refuge maintenance workers used gas-powered blowers to push live oak leaves out of the yard as Heisey, staff members and volunteers removed vintage housewares. They took out all the bed linens, photos, special books, old kerosene lanterns, hats, bonnets and curtains.
They left much of the old furniture but moved it away from outer walls.
Johanson asked them not to lock any doors or windows. “We may have to punch through,” he said.
On the opposite side of the swamp, teams of firefighters directed by a Georgia Forestry Commission team widened firebreaks east of Cypress Creek to prevent the fire going farther west toward Fargo, Stephen C. Foster State Park, private timber and homes.
Crews will provide support for private landowners on the southeast side of the swamp in preparation for the fire moving east as they continue to monitor and patrol fire breaks on the existing fire perimeter, the West Mims Fire team said in a prepared statement.
Although the fire burned out much of its potential fuel as it advanced east, hot spots remain in the northeast corner of the fire as it burns in the interior of the swamp, Heisey said.
The change in wind direction could cause the fire to strengthen and move east and north toward unburned, inaccessible areas, she said.
Florida 2/Georgia 94 between the state line and Fargo remains closed south of the refuge from 10 p.m. until 10 a.m. All overnight camping is closed along wilderness canoe trails, and the Chesser Island boardwalk is closed.
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405