By BRAD KUHN Special To The J-H
As a crew of 50 firefighters prays for rain to once-and-for-good douse a fire smoldering in the heart of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, new life is already knee high where the fire began almost three months ago.
Within days of the fire’s passing, bracken ferns, the first responders of wetlands renewal, emerged from the blackened earth and went to work.
The West Mims Fire, sparked April 6 by a lightning strike within the refuge (and pronounced all but out weeks ago, thanks to days of soaking rainfall), has burned more than 152,000 acres.
At one point the fire, which is now 99 percent contained, raged out of control, threatening the town of St. George and drawing more than 1,000 firefighters from across the country.
The fire had drawn national attention for its sheer size. And yet the massive conflagration has taken no human life and caused minimal structural damage.
That’s by design, according to Susan Heisey, supervisory refuge ranger with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Folkston.
“Fire is an important part of the Okefenokee ecosystem,” she said. “It’s the disruption of the natural fire regime due to development that leads to an accumulation of fuel and bigger, more destructive wildfires.”
It may sound strange, but fire is nature’s fire suppression system, with smaller wildfires and controlled burns serving to consume dry grasses and tinder before they can accumulate to dangerous proportions. In the case of the West Mims Fire, lightning struck in a remote area at a time when an extended drought had dropped water levels, leaving an unusually high amount of dry fuel in an area that was hard to reach.
Don Berryhill has seen his share of wildfires in five decades as an educator at Okefenokee Swamp Park, a non-profit historical and ecological park on the northern refuge boundary. And he has come to appreciate the positive aspects of this powerful force of nature.
“Fire creates ash, which is a fertilizer; it opens up the tree canopy to let light in to the ground below,” he said. “And when it burns through the peat and down to sand, it makes way for lakes and new wetlands.”
Most wetlands creatures are familiar with fire and know how to get out of its way, Berryhill said.
“We typically find very few casualties,” he said. “In times of drought, alligators follow the water. You won’t find them in dry areas.”
Heisey and Berryhill made their remarks at an educational session on wildfire recently at the Okefenokee Swamp Park.
The park is more than 30 miles north of the West Mims Fire and the damage it inflicted, and it has remained open for visitors and summer camps … but it has seen its share of fires up close and personal.
On a tour of the park, by boat, on foot and by train, Berryhill pointed out scorched tree trunks, charred stumps and the remains of an old boardwalk that succumbed to a past blaze. If he hadn’t pointed them out, however, it’s likely no one would have noticed, for all the lush new growth of cypress, soap bush, and more than 600 other species of plant life that has regenerated since then.
The Okefenokee Swamp Park is celebrating its 70th year of operation and is exploring plans to expand and update its facilities to enhance educational experiences with interactive technology.
The park allows visitors to travel back in time and learn about the swamp and what life was like in the region more than 100 years ago.
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