Video: Drought conditions widespread

updated 6/26/2007 9:57:17 AM ET 2007-06-26T13:57:17

Ernest Sweat pauses by the charred pine trunk he found burning like a match two months ago, and he wonders — did he have a prayer of stopping the largest Southeastern wildfire in a century?

Sweat was driving home April 16 when he spotted smoke along the dirt road to his tobacco farm. He got close enough to see power lines dangling, snapped by the fallen pine, and flames climbing the surrounding trees.

"It was as big as three pickup trucks," said Sweat, 74, who dashed home to call the fire department. "If I could have just been here a little bit earlier, before it got into those roots, I could've outed it."

Within a day, the wildfire burned a 9-mile path through rural timberland. A week later, the blaze had destroyed 18 homes and spread into the Okefenokee Swamp. After a month, it had merged with a second fire, sparked by lightning, that raced through the swamp into northern Florida.

Two months after the fire ignited near Sweat's farm, the combined wildfires have burned 578,000 acres — or 903 square miles — in Georgia and Florida. The fires' total footprint, up to 30 miles wide and 58 miles long, covers an area 2.8 times larger than New York City.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, that's the Southeast's biggest wildfire since 1898.

Firefighters were unable to stop the blaze from spreading rapidly through trees, brush and grasses turned tinder-dry by severe drought in southeast Georgia.

But they say the monstrous fire, for the most part, has stopped growing.

Some moisture helped
On June 2, Tropical Storm Barry doused the area with as much as 8 inches of rain, reducing most active flames to smoldering coals. Scattered showers since have dumped an additional 2-to-4 inches over the fires, which are centered in the 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

With much of the flame knocked down by rain, firefighters are now focusing on dousing smoldering hot spots in the ground and fortifying bulldozed fire breaks that have the blazes more than 90 percent contained.

Many of the firefighters are being sent home. About 600 firefighters are now assigned to the Georgia and Florida fires — less than half the number battling them a month ago.

"We feel comfortable the fire in its current state will not escape the refuge ... but I wouldn't say it's impossible," said Mark Ruggiero, who spent five weeks commanding firefighting efforts at the Okefenokee refuge before his joint state-and-federal team left earlier this month. "I suspect this thing will be burning in September."

The U.S. has seen several larger wildfires in recent years. Fires burned 1.3 million acres in Alaska in 2004, and last year a cluster of blazes scorched 907,245 acres near Amarillo, Texas.

Records of the Iowa-based National Interagency Fire Center show South Carolina reported a series of fires that burned 3 million acres in 1898, although center spokeswoman Rose Davis questioned the accuracy of records from so long ago.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Forestry Commission expects to have a portion of the blaze — 82,500 acres south of Waycross and north of the Okefenokee refuge — snuffed within three weeks.

Alan Dozier, the commission's forest protection chief, said his crews still need to extinguish about 20 pockets of smoldering debris and peat, decayed swamp vegetation that holds heat like charcoal.

"Things have been a lot less frantic," Dozier said. "We still have a lot of work to do on the fire, but we're not having to worry about chasing it across the pine timber landscape."

$54 million estimated cost
Scaling back the number of firefighters will help reduce costs to taxpayers, estimated at more than $54 million since the fires began. Most of that will be covered under federal emergency grants.

In Folkston, on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee, residents are now seeing storm clouds overhead rather than the plumes of wildfire smoke that sent ashes falling like snowflakes for weeks.

Mandy Parker, a cashier at a Folkston produce market, said it's been three weeks since she last saw older customers come in wearing dust masks to filter the smoke. The market now smells like fresh peaches rather than burning pines.

"It's a big difference — there's no ashes falling anymore," said Parker, 21. "It was awful. It slowed down business because a lot of people here didn't even get out."

This week, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, opened its visitor center for the first time in more than a month.

Tourists who turn out to see the fire damage firsthand will see plenty of blackened trees — but also fresh green grass and ferns growing at their roots, a sign that nature has already started to rebound.

"We're starting to get back to a semblance of normalcy again," said Jim Burkhart, a refuge ranger.

Still, firefighters stress that if the rains cease, dry conditions and strong winds could cause pockets of flame to flare back to life.

Sweat, who first discovered the blaze in April, is taking those warnings seriously. He said he rides his four wheel all-terrain vehicle almost daily through the woods behind his house "just to see if I can see any fire starting up."

"I'm fire conscious now," Sweat said. "I don't have much, but I'd sure like for it to stay here."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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