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Wildfire smoldering; declared largest Southern fire in decades

    WAYCROSS, Ga. — Ernest Sweat paused by the charred pine trunk he found burning like a match two months ago and wondered — could he have stopped the largest Southeastern wildfire in more than a century?
    Sweat was driving home April 16 when he spotted smoke along the dirt road to his tobacco farm. Power lines were snapped by fallen pine and flames climbed surrounding trees. He dashed home to call the fire department, but the blaze had already spread.
    It would become the Southeast’s biggest wildfire since 1898, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
    ‘‘If I could have just been here a little bit earlier, before it got into those roots, I could’ve outed it,’’ he said.
    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 merged with a second fire, sparked by lightning, and raced through the swamp into northern Florida. Firefighters were unable to stop the blaze from spreading rapidly through trees, brush and grasses turned tinder-dry by severe drought in southeast Georgia.
    In the end, the massive fire would burn a total of 903 square miles. Its footprint, up to 30 miles wide and 58 miles long, covers an area 2.8 times larger than New York City.
    The total cost is estimated at more than $54 million since the fires began, most of it covered under federal emergency grants.
    But fire officials say the fire, for the most part, has stopped growing.
    On June 2, Tropical Storm Barry doused the area with as much as 8 inches of rain, reducing most of the flames to smoldering coals. Scattered showers since have dumped an additional 2 to 4 inches on the fires, which are centered in the 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
    Firefighters are focusing on dousing smoldering hot spots and fortifying bulldozed fire breaks that have the blazes more than 90 percent contained. But many 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.
    Mark Ruggiero spent five weeks commanding firefighting efforts at the Okefenokee refuge before his joint state-and-federal team left earlier this month.
    ‘‘We feel comfortable the fire in its current state will not escape the refuge ... but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible,’’ he said. ‘‘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.
    In Folkston, on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee, cashier Mandy Parker said it’s been three weeks since she last saw older customers at the produce market where she works come in wearing dust masks to filter the smoke.
    ‘‘It’s a big difference — there’s no ashes falling anymore,’’ she said. ‘‘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.
    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, said he rides his four wheel all-terrain vehicle through the woods behind his house ‘‘to see if I can see any fire starting up.’’
    ‘‘I’m fire conscious now,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t have much, but I’d sure like for it to stay here.’’
    ———
    On the Net:
    Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/okefenokee/
    National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov/

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