With increased winds behind it and records highs in front of it, the West Mims Fire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is forecast to shift toward the east Saturday and move rapidly toward the refuge headquarters and communities on the east side of the huge swamp.

 

After anticipated record highs of 92 to 93 degrees Friday, a cold front is expected to pass through the area over the weekend bringing gusting winds that will increase the fire, the West Mims Fire incident team said.

The fire was already showing signs of increased activity Friday afternoon with smoke hanging over Fargo and some minor ash fall there, said Susan Heisey, supervisory ranger of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Because of an expected shift of wind direction from the south and then southwest, Stephen C. Foster State Park was closed immediately Friday as mitigation crews continued working to protect structures, said Leland Bass, a fire information officer from the Georgia Forestry Commission.

“They’re going to be working around that area,” he said of the teams.

Thunderstorms are predicted in the area and it was a lightning strike started the fire April 6.

With the stronger winds and a dry fuels taken into account, fire forecasters say the fire could move as rapidly as a quarter to one third of a mile in an hour. Nearby remote weather stations have broken all-time high temperatures for the past month and that run was predicted to continue Friday. The heat combined with a lack of rain has made the grass and brush in front of the fire extremely volatile, the incident team said.

“This means that fuels are dryer than most people have ever seen,” officials said in a prepared statement.

“The good thing is, there’s been a lot of prep operation done to get ahead of this,” Heisey said. “Everyone is in position and ready to see what the fire will do this weekend. We’re just hoping for the best.”

Tractor plows, strategic burns and aerial drops of water and fire retardant have all been used to widen fire breaks south and east of Cypress Creek, which was established as a line to prevent more northwestward movement. The fire has been checked up at the creek over the past three days, but there is a risk of spot overs as the fire intensifies, officials have said.

The fire was estimated at 25,464 acres on Friday morning after a day with little activity. Three-hundred-eighty-five personnel are assigned to the fire and the projected containment date has been changed from June 1 to November 1. Working the fire were six helicopters, 36 wildland fire engines, eight bulldozers, 43 tractor plows and two inter-agency hot shot crews.

Initially, the West Mims Fire first burned west and south in the refuge and into the John M. Bethea State Forest and Osceola National Forest in Florida. Since then, pushed by easterly winds, the fire has moved mostly west and northwest forming a long fire perimeter across the bottom of the swamp. The winds are predicted to come from the south and then the southwest by Sunday which would push the long northern edge of the fire toward the northeast, the forecast says.

Anticipating that the fire would reach the east side of the swamp by Sunday, a crew from the Texas A&M Forest Service on Friday were wrapping the historic Chesser Island homestead and several outbuilding in reinforced foil to protect them from blowing embers. The house that Tom and Iva Chesser built in the 1920s is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Texas A&M crew had wrapped the house to the roof line and enclosed the porches Thursday and were to finish the job Friday and then wrap the smokehouse and other buildings.

A sprinkler system has been running along the full 4,000 feet of the boardwalk to the Owl’s Roost observation tower to prevent it burning again as it did in the 2011 Honey Prairie-Bugaboo Fire. The former boardwalk was wood, but its replacement is a composite material.

When the boardwalk was rebuilt, a dedicated water system was also installed, Heisey said.

“They’ve been running that sprinkler system every day to build up moisture,” she said.

The incident team will hold public informational meetings at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Fargo Elementary School and at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Charlton County Annex auditorium next to the county courthouse.

Although boat tours were continuing at the Suwannee Canal Recreation area, overnight camp sites along wilderness canoe trails are closed as is the Chesser Island homestead and boardwalk. There is a burn ban in effect in the refuge and Baker County, and Georgia 94/Florida 2 between the state line and Fargo is still closed from 10 p.m. until 10 a.m.

Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405