SAVANNAH, Ga. — Firefighters worked Friday to strengthen defenses against large wildfires burning in southeast Georgia after their growth was slowed by overnight thunderstorms dumping an inch or more of rain.
The fires have burned more than 500 square miles, mostly in the Okefenokee Swamp but also across private timberland in Ware, Charlton and Brantley Counties. More than 1,200 firefighters are battling the blazes near the Georgia-Florida line, where the largest fire was sparked by a lightning strike inside the swamp April 30.
Thunderstorms poured 1 to 2 inches of rain on the wildfires Thursday night, said Eric Mosley, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. That wasn't wet enough to snuff the fires, but it slowed them enough to give firefighters with bulldozers a chance Friday to fortify fire breaks plowed around them.
"This is a long-term battle," Mosley said. "This little bit of rain we've received is very helpful, but it's not going to put these fires out."
Residents who have kept a nervous eye on fires just a few miles from their homes — and had to breathe thick smoke spewing from the burning woods — got some instant relief.
Josh Cravey, a corrections officer who lives on a family farm a few miles outside Waycross, said the rain flushed out the smoky haze that hung over his land for days.
The Sweat Farm Again fire, named for nearby Sweat Farm Road where the worst wildfire in Georgia's history began in 2007, has burned more than 30 square miles north of the swamp in Ware County since June 15. Its path has come within about 2 miles of Cravey's home. On Friday, after the rains, he said he couldn't even tell the wildfire was still there.
"When that fire started last week, you could see the smoke from our house because it was so close," Cravey said. "Now you can't even see that smoke anymore."
Officials said rain was also helping efforts to contain the Racepond fire, which has burned nearly 33 square miles northeast of the Okefenokee, as well as the vast Honey Prairie fire that's consumed more than 430 square miles — almost all of it inside the boundaries of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Officials say it would take several days of sustained, soaking rain to snuff the fires in and near the Okefenokee. For now, there may be more scattered showers to help suppress the flames in the coming days.
The National Weather Service has forecast a 30 to 50 percent chance of thunderstorms through Sunday in Waycross and other communities near the swamp. The question is how much moisture those storms will drop. Some in recent weeks have brought more lightning than rain, making them a danger for starting new fires.
"Some of them don't produce much rain and then others can produce an inch or two. It's highly variable," said Matt Zibura, a weather service forecaster in Jacksonville, Fla.
Mosley said lightning from the storms Thursday night started six new fires in southeast Georgia but firefighters had quickly contained them to fewer than 10 acres.