HOBOKEN, GA. | The number of firefighters battling the West Mims Fire in the Okefenokee Swamp was nearing 300 Wednesday and they came from Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.
The big fire reminded Clyde Aldridge of his youth growing up in Brantley County not far from Waycross. He was 15 in 1954 when the Mule Tail Fire came out of the Okefenokee Swamp.
The fire got its name from the accidental arsonist, a mule in a turpentine camp. The workers would go from pine to pine, scraping the thick pine gum from the cups hung below the faces, as they called places on tree trunks where the bark had been chipped off to let the sap ooze.
That pine gum was taken to stills where it was cooked into turpentine, pine tar and other products. The mule pulled a wagon and had gotten enough pine gum in its tail to turn it into a torch. The turpentine workers had a fire on a cold February morning and the mule switched his tail into the fire and it ignited. The mule then did what seemed to be sensible: It tried to outrun its flaming tail and left a trail of burning woods.
It was dry and the fire spread quickly at first. Some days it crept, and others it raced. Firefighting equipment for woods fires wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as now, and there just wasn’t enough of it.
Some days the fire just eased along, but at some point it got its second wind, raced out of the swamp, jumped U.S. and headed north.
“We heard that fire was creeping toward Brantley,” Aldridge said.
But then, with a howling wind behind, it, the fire came roaring toward Brantley County and the community decided they weren’t going to let it come any farther, Aldridge said.
It was treated like a jury summons or an uncle’s obituary. People put aside all other business and rallied.
“It was a big all hands,” men, women, everyone, Aldridge said. “Old, young, whatever. It was scary but exciting.”
He and a bunch of teenage boys piled into the backs of pickup trucks, went out to what is now U.S. 84, and watched it come. The highway that formed the border with Ware County was two lanes then, but combined with a parallel railroad, it made a good fire break. But, as he said, the wind was howling and hot embers spotted over and set small fires across the tracks.
The adult at the wheel cranked up and drove toward the new fires.
“We’d jump out and beat out the fires with green pine tops,” he said. “A few of them got to about an acre before we beat and stomped them out.”
Also, unlike the Ware County side which was mostly woods, there was some open farm land on the Brantley County side and people used buckets and hoses to stop it on their property. They had a lot to lose, houses, tobacco barns and New Hope Church, but it was all still standing when the smoke cleared, he said.
“We stopped that fire from burning Brantley County that night,” Aldridge said.
They weren’t the only ones who did that. To the west in Atkinson County, the Kirkland family owned timber on the high ground above Roundabout Swamp in the community that was named for them.
Patricia Kirkland has seen her share of fires in the swamp including 2007 when it was bone dry.
“I sat on my porch [off Lazy 9 Road] and watched the helicopter land to get water to put it out,” she said.
Before that, the Kirklands had often taken it on themselves.
“You’d take a barrel of water on a wagon and keep pouring buckets of water on it,” she said of past fires.
Her late husband, Jeff Kirkland, would hook up a harrow to his tractor and plow breaks around all he could, she said.
In 2007, the huge fire burned stubbornly and deep into the swamp’s dry peat. Jeff Kirkland told the Savannah Morning News then that humans had never put out a fire in the swamp.
All you can do, he said, was keep it in the swamp until enough rain came to put it out.
And at some point, it will rain again. It always has.
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