Strategies Differ in Protecting History from Honey Prairie Fire
The Florida Times-Union
May 25, 2011
FOLKSTON, Fla. — Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Manager Curt McCasland admitted he didn’t know much about swamp fires when he experienced his first: the now 148,522-acre Honey Prairie Fire.
After all, McCasland just arrived in October from the Arizona desert where there’s a different strategy for fighting fires.
“My first reaction was to rain water on this thing,” he said of the fire that was about 60 acres when it was discovered April 29, “to spend lots of money to try to put this thing out.”
In the past, federal and state governments have spent millions on air drops, water lines and putting tractors into the swamp. No more. The strategy now — a decidedly cheaper one — is to build wide breaks around the swamp’s edge with tractors and burnouts and fight the fire when it hits the edge.
That’s what has worked successfully, so far at least, on the Honey Prairie Fire, which was 70 percent contained Monday. But that strategy is not being applied everywhere.
The four entities fighting the fire — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Georgia Forestry Commission and the Georgia Division of Forestry — have put a lot of resources into protecting some resources too valuable and, in one case, too much a fabric of the swamp to place at risk.
Long-time refuge ranger Jim Burkhart helped show off some of that work Monday along Swamp Island Drive at refuge headquarters south of Folkston. It’s a four-mile road that leads to the historic Chesser Island Homestead and the three-quarter-mile- boardwalk to Owl’s Roost, a tower that provides a good view of spacious Chesser Prairie and Seagrove Lake.
Tom and Iva Chesser settled in the swamp in the early 1900s and built their house from timber sawn in the swamp, Burkhart said.
“The only thing they brought in were windows and nails,” he said.
Protecting the past
Although firefighters said they can protect the house with fire engines, the refuge is not taking any chances. It set controlled burns to remove fuels from nearby woods weeks before an April 28 lightning strike ignited the Honey Prairie Fire.
As Burkhart said, “We knew this was coming,” it was just a matter of when with the swamp’s water sapped by drought.
That burnout proved valuable when the Honey Prairie Fire tried to burn across the island April 11-14, the refuge said. Firefighters essentially had to monitor the edges of the burnout to keep the fire from encroaching farther, Burkhart said at the time.
Also, the refuge staff wrapped much of the Chesser house in a protective foil wrap and firefighters came later and finished the job. A crew installed water lines along boardwalks that branch off to wildlife viewing platforms.
They truck water in from a boat basin, empty it into big aboveground tanks and then pump it through several fire hoses to wet down to the boardwalk periodically, said Randy Jones of the Lake County Fire Department who is overseeing the operation. It takes all the lines snaking along the boardwalk just to ensure there’s adequate pressure all the way out, he said.
But Burkhart stressed providing protection for the boardwalk and the house didn’t make them equal in importance.
“That boardwalk was built in the ’60s and can be replaced. If this thing burns down,” he said of the house, “you don’t have it anymore. It’s irreplaceable.”
It is a vital link with the past and between the swamp and the community, he said. Some of Tom and Iva Chesser’s family still live in the community.
If anyone responsible failed to protect the house and it were lost, “I’m not sure you could live here,” Burkhart said.
There already have been some losses nearby during the massive fires of 2007 that burned nearly 600,000 acres, he said.
The fire came up on the back side of the property and burned a natural area where scientists did research on plants, Burkhart said.
“I’m not sure those plants will ever come back,” he said.
Some of the same precautions were taken, although on a larger scale, across the swamp at Stephen C. Foster State Park to protect its boardwalks, cabins, picnic pavilions and other facilities.
The fire is pretty much hemmed in by so called strategic firing operations and plowing and clearing firebreaks around the swamp’s edge. Among the 30 percent not considered contained are a section in the southeast corner and a larger section in southwest.
“The northern front is for all intents and purposes, uncontained,” McCasland said.
The fire is checked up against a canal, but, McCasland said, “We’re still somewhat concerned.”
A low pressure ridge over the region has helped and hurt the effort, said Steve Ippolitti, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
It’s good that winds have been near calm, but bad that temperatures are high and the humidity low, Ippolitti said. It was 101 degrees over the fire Sunday and the humidity was about 18 percent, he said.
Ippolitti monitors conditions constantly to help supervisors predict the fire’s behavior and, in some instances, to issue watches so firefighters can avoid danger from extreme weather.
He and Mark L. Wiles, a senior forester for the Georgia Forestry Commission, climbed Owl’s Roost Monday and looked over the lush Chesser Prairie and Seagrove Lake. Beyond the green, to the northeast and southwest, were stands of brown topped timber where the fire had burned. Wiles said there are some ugly areas in the swamp including some from prescribed burns to get rid of the fuel.
“It’s better to lose a few trees from prescribed burning than all of them from a wildfire,” he said.
Ippolitti said things should improve in the long run. Changing patterns indicate normal rainfall amounts should return during the summer, he said.
There was another sign Monday of increased optimism over the fire.
The first two miles of Suwannee Canal are again open to guided tours, said Arthur Webster, supervisory ranger at the refuge.
“That could change on a moment’s notice,” he said, so visitors should first call (912) 496-7156.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
© 2009, YellowBrix, Inc.