One of the tallest structures in northern Hall County is the fire tower in Lula. Its location on Georgia Rt.52 is on the tall ridge separating the Chattahoochee drainage basin from the Oconee. Staff members of the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) have to climb 15 scary-looking flights of stairs, out in the open, to get to the shed enclosure at the top. But seeing North Georgia from such height is magnificent.
However, this isn’t a sightseeing job. The GFC’s mission is ”to provide leadership, service and education in the protection and conservation of Georgia’s forest resources”. Part of this requires preventing forest fires, and detecting them when they break out. Georgia hasn’t seen entire towns wiped out like California has. But we’ve had our share of devastating blazes.
The year 2007 stands out in Georgia’s wildfire history. The trouble started in mid-April with a broken power line near Waycross. The electric arc sparked a blaze that quickly spread into the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge. Uniting with another wildfire that had started from lightning, the result became known as the Georgia Bay Complex Fire, one of the largest in U.S. history. Continuing through the entire month of May and into June, this conflagration consumed more than 500,000 acres of native pine and cypress stands. The Wildlife Refuge is located in a triangle between Waycross, Fargo and Folkston. There was considerable worry that the fire might reach and encircle those towns, but mercifully this didn’t happen. But smoke from the blaze traveled all the way to Atlanta.
Nature likes to do her housekeeping with small, naturally started fires to burn dead branches and other plant litter. These fires don’t tend to burn down an entire forest. But if they are suppressed to protect housing structures, debris accumulates. When a fire starts and involves a great deal of dead wood, it can evolve into a super-hot crown fire. Eyewitness accounts from California describe the updraft caused by the searing heat, with flames literally racing through housing subdivisions.
In May 2017 another 100,000 acres burned in and around Charlton County, prompting evacuations. It takes heat, dry conditions and wind for a wildfire to spread. We’ll see these conditions again. The fire tower in Lula is a good reminder of the important work that the Georgia Forestry Commission does with controlled burns, fire forecasts and continuous vigilance.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.