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Area forestry staff fight Okefenokee fires
As of Friday, flames burned more than 150 square miles
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Six employees of the Georgia Forestry Service's Gainesville office are among about 175 people keeping the state's second-biggest fire since 2007 under control at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia.

These people from Hall County to Utah to New Hampshire are working 16-hour shifts to bring the 96,400-acre swamp fire from destroying anything outside the 400,000-plus acres of the refuge that is unique to the state.

And it isn't easy.

"It's really hard to fight a fire in the swamp," said Hannah Thompson-Welch, public information officer for what's dubbed the Honey Prairie Fire and normally an assistant county ranger in North Carolina who has joined the effort.

Thompson-Welch said helicopters, tractor-plows and different types of fire trucks were being used to battle the blaze, which started April 28 from lightning as tornadoes swept through the South.

She said the aim is to just keep the fire contained to the Okefenokee swamp and prevent it from advancing past roads into private nearby property. Firefighters work at the perimeters and aren't entering the swamp other than helicopters that work overhead.

"We're monitoring the fire every day from the air," she said.

Only a heavy rainfall event will help crews make progress with the fire and nobody knows when that may happen, Thompson-Welch said.

So far, about 50 acres of private property have been scorched, and "we are doing some structural protection inside the park," Thompson-Welch said.

The Florida Times Union in Jacksonville said residents about nine miles from the fire were concerned about fires near them, but fire officials said those were set by arsonists last week.

As of Friday, the fire had burned more than 150 square miles, about a quarter of the refuge's total swamp land.
The refuge extends into Florida and residents in the Georgia counties of Richmond and Columbia, which is 200 miles north of the Augusta area, reported smelling smoke from the fire last week when the wind was blowing north.

Thompson-Welch said the people fighting the fire generally work two-week shifts before being relieved and wear fire-resistant clothing, leather boots, gloves and hard hats. They wear bandanas and masks to avoid breathing smoke. Pre-packaged meals are ordered from local restaurants and they stay at motels or hotels.

The fire in the swamp is the biggest since 2007 when lightning started another fire there and it merged with another wildfire near Waycross on April 16. More than 580,000 acres burned in that one.

The refuge in Charlton, Ware and Clinch counties in Georgia and Baker County in Florida was established in 1937 to protect the swamp. It is the 16th most-visited refuge in the country and the largest of any not located in a western state.

Thompson-Welch said it's not known how the fire will affect the wildlife. But a burn-off could improve the environment there or cause harm depending on its endurance.

The swamp has more than 600 species of plants and animals including 39 species of fish, 64 different reptiles and more than 200 bird and 50 mammal species.

It is home to alligators, bobcats, raptors, black bears, white-tailed deer, wood storks, gopher tortoises and many bird species.

It is one of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems and is a saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the Atlantic Ocean floor.

Most canoe trails in the refuge are closed from the fire, as are overnight canoe trips, day-use boating and tours.

Friday, the Times-Union reported that helicopters and airplane tankers began dropping water onto the fire's northern edge in hopes of preventing its spread to Billy's Island, one of the highest and driest areas in the swamp where the flames could race north.

Georgia Newspaper Partnership and Associated Press reports contributed to this report.