Wildfires take toll on timber industry

South Georgia blazes likely to burn all week, officials say

By JIM THARPE, JENNIFER BRETT
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/22/07

The wildfires that have burned for a week near the Okefenokee Swamp have dealt an expensive blow to the timber industry, state forestry officials said Monday.

Eric Mosley, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said the 56,000-acre Sweat Farm Road fire in Ware County so far has caused timber losses estimated at nearly $65 million.

The fire was about 39-percent contained Monday morning, and officials estimated it would likely be Friday before the fire is fully contained.

On Sunday, crews improved fire breaks along the northern and western portions of the fire nearest to Waycross, where some 6,000 residents had been advised to evacuate."Along the southern portion of the fire was another story altogether," Mosley said.

"The morning provided much needed relief due to subdued weather conditions, but as afternoon drew closer, conditions changed from great to horrible," he said. "Lower humidity and increased winds provided renewed energy to the sleeping giant." Those winds on Sunday sent sinus-irritating smoke as far north as Chattanooga.

The fire, 250 miles southeast of Atlanta, draped portions of the metro area in a smoky haze early Sunday.

The smoke last week had moved as far south as Jacksonville, which last week issued a health warning in three counties because of the bad air. Over the weekend the wind direction changed, pushing the smoke toward Atlanta.

"The wind keeps shifting," said Robin Cole, a Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman. "It depends on the wind as to who gets the smoke."

Wherever that smoke goes, physicians warn that Georgia allergy sufferers, already enduring one of the worst pollen seasons in recent history, will be hard hit.

"It's like a 1-2 punch for people with allergies," said Stanley Fineman, an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic.

"[Smoke] will definitely exacerbate breathing problems," Fineman said. "Any pollutant will hurt, but smoke is one of the worst."

Fineman recommended allergy suffers remain inside in air conditioning as much as possible. And he suggested wearing a dust mask for those who must work outside when the smoke moves into their area.

The fire, the worst in the area in half a century, has destroyed 18 homes and threatens the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the nation. Fires have already erupted in sections of the swamp that are not in the refuge.

"For this thing to be completely extinguished, it will take some rain, and unfortunately there's not any in the immediate forecast," said Ken Davis of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Forestry officials said 692 workers are battling the blaze, using 82 bulldozers and 122 firefighting vehicles.

In a typical year, the Georgia Forestry Commission battles about 8,000 wildfires that together consume about 40,000 acres.

The Sweat Farm Road fire has already surpassed that figure.

Since the fire began a week ago when a tree fell on a power line, it has forced the evacuation of 1,000 people, mostly in or near Waycross. An additional 5,000 were urged to go voluntarily last week because of potential health hazards from heavy smoke blowing into Waycross.

Schools in Ware County, where classes were canceled on Tuesday through Friday last week, remained closed on Monday.

Staff writer Mike Morris contributed to this article.