Horror stories about the raging wildfires in Colorado and Arizona have been on the front pages of our newspapers every day for the past few months. But another major fire, burning in Georgia, has been ignored by the media.
Fires just as large as the ones in the West have been burning for 3 months in Georgia's 396,000 acre Okefenokee Swamp, causing layers of smoke to pollute the air over Florida, Alabama and South Carolina. So far, more than 124,000 acres have burned since March, which is equivalent to the wildfires in Arizona and Colorado. But the Georgia fires have been confined mostly to the uninhabited swamp, meaning no houses burned and no one had to be evacuated.
The fire began with an intentional burn by the Georgia Forestry Staff, since periodic fires are necessary to maintain the Okefenokee's ecosystem. Also, firefighters wanted to control the blaze in order to prevent it from spreading to timberland and private homes. Then two other fires sprang up on their own?both caused by lightning?so the blaze got bigger than they?d planned.
The swamp is in its fifth year of drought. Despite periodic rain, fires continue to burn in the thick layers of peat moss, which is dry and highly combustible. At one time, 300 firefighters were assigned to the Okefenokee fires. With the recent rains, the flames have subsided somewhat, so fewer firefighters are needed. It?s dangerous to send firefighters into the swamp and heavy equipment is useless there, so swamp fires are fought from the uplands surrounding the Okefenokee.
During the 1990s, a 20-to-150-foot-wide firebreak was cleared for about 250 miles around the edge of the swamp, where firefighters can go to fight the flames. Area landowners have even gotten together and erected street signs to help firefighters find their way along the many logging roads that wind through the remote area. They feel that fires are inevitable, so they?d better be prepared. Wesley Langdale says, ''The lightning is going to strike and the swamp is going to catch on fire. Doesn't it make more sense to get to know your neighbors before?everyone is freaking out?''
Firefighter Alan Dozier says, ''We have communities outside the Okefenokee?that we've been worried about, but with planning and preparedness, we've been able to keep the fires out. Our success has kept them from being threatened like the ones out West?Instead of the fire dictating what we do everyday, we planned ahead.''
If global warming means that drought conditions will become a permanent part of life, we?re all going to have to plan ahead. We may have to make hard decisions like abandoning homesites in remote, unprotected areas and living without sprinklers and swimming pools. To find out what each of us can do about global warming, read ?The Coming Global Superstorm,? now only $9.95 for a hardcover signed by Whitley Strieber, click here.
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