A gust of wind or other act of nature quickly turned a permitted, five-acre controlled burn on Thursday in southern Bulloch County into an out-of-control wildfire that ended up burning about 130 acres of timber land.
Byron Haire, the Georgia Forestry Commission’s area fire management officer for Bulloch and surrounding counties, said it took 15 people, seven tractor/bulldozers and finally two air tankers and a helicopter to bring the fire under control after about seven hours from early Thursday afternoon into the early evening.
“With all the rain we’ve had and so much water seemingly saturating the ground, you would think it would make a forest fire almost impossible,” Haire said in a phone interview Friday. “But what happened Thursday is a reminder of the need for preparation and caution and still something can happen and start a wildfire.”
Haire said the landowner had secured a controlled-burn permit for five acres of his timber land of pine trees located off Akins Lane, which is a dirt road connected to Mud Road near Arcola Road in southern Bulloch.
“I want to emphasize that the landowner followed the guidelines of a burn, but sometime around noon, either the wind or something else threw off a spark and caused some nearby brush to ignite,” Haire said. “He had a bulldozer on-site, but he called us pretty quickly when he saw his crew couldn’t contain it.”
Haire said the Bulloch Forestry office received a call from the landowner about 12:30 p.m. and dispatched personnel and equipment from around the area to the site of the fire.
Using seven bulldozers, the crews set up fire breaks and Haire said they thought they had it contained about 4 p.m. when wind with help from the fire allowed a part of the fire to jump and ignite even more brush and trees.
The land was too swampy and watery to bring in any fire tanker trucks, so it was at that time, Haire said, they decided to call in air tankers and a helicopter that could ferry a water bucket. The “Bandit” air tankers were located in Macon and Waycross at the time and arrived on the scene about 4:30.
Air tankers to the rescue
Haire said the Bandits are single-engine aircraft that can carry up to 500 gallons of water each to be dumped on the fire. After dumping a load, they would fly to the Statesboro Airport, where a water hydrant re-loaded their water tanks.
The helicopter bucket can carry about 190 gallons of water and it was able to reload at ponds in the vicinity of the fire.
Haire said the air tanker Bandits dropped a total of eight loads, or about 3,200 gallons of water, while the helicopter dropped 16 loads, or about 2,880 gallons of water on the fire.
About two and a half hours later, Haire said the fire was contained and mostly extinguished at 7 p.m.
The Bulloch County Fire Department came to the site, but due to the conditions that wouldn’t allow tankers to get close to the fire and the fact that no structures were ever in danger, did not actively participate in the actual fighting of the wildfire.
Haire said the Forestry Commission has a “great relationship” with the Bulloch Fire Department in assisting each other whenever necessary. “We work well together with all the area fire departments,” he said.
Damage from the fire is still being assessed, so it is not known yet how many trees received permanent fire damage.
“At first look, it appears most of the bigger timber did OK,” Haire said. “Trees that did suffer significant damage can be salvaged for timber, but they would need to be cut quickly.”
As winter turns to spring in south Georgia, Haire said that’s when burn permit requests rise significantly for larger scale controlled burns. He said last weekend, 45 permits for burns of mostly two to three acre areas were issued in Bulloch County alone. Some requests were for 100 acres or more.
“This certainly is a time of year where controlled burns are the most popular,” Haire said. “And burns are an important land management tool. But, as was the case Thursday, fire can be unpredictable even if you do everything right.”
Permits actually are required for even burning piles of leaves or branches in your yard, in addition to the larger controlled brush burns. Permits can be obtained at: https://gatrees.org/fire-prevention-suppression/burn-permits/