Tens of thousands of acres of a wildlife refuge are being reduced to ashes as the West Mims Fire continues to spread.
The 21,790-acre wildfire is burning at the southern border of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, according to Susan Granbery, spokesperson for West Mims Fire Information. The fire also includes parts of John M. Bethea State Forest and the Red Fox Fire burns nearby in the Osceola National Forest.
There is currently a crew of 330 personnel working to contain the fire, Granbery said. They have various responsibilities, including patrolling for and monitoring hot spots, protecting useful and archaeological structures, maintaining containment lines, and other mitigation efforts. A night crew has also begun working after dusk when the wind is weaker and the temperature has dropped.
Despite all of this, the fire is only about 3 percent contained, according to Granbery.
The personnel are a mixture of state and local workers from Florida and Georgia, and federal workers from agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and private contractors, according to Granbery and the press release.
The West Mims Fire has been burning since it was ignited by a lightning strike on April 6. Various factors, including increased wind Wednesday, will likely cause the fire to spread even more, Granbery said. This fire is expected to burn throughout summer and will be continually monitored.
“The fuels are different,” Granbery said. “It’s drier this year.”
The continually spreading fire is requiring an increasing amount of personnel to fight it. Since Monday, the fire is reported to have grown over 1,600 acres and required an additional 125 workers to join the containment effort.
In 2011, the Honey Prairie Fire burned about 300,000 acres in the Okefenokee refuge. That fire was started by a lightning strike, just like the West Mims Fire, on April 28, 2011, and was officially out nearly a year later on April 16, 2012.
At approximately 12:40 p.m. on Tuesday, an air tanker dropped its load of fire retardant over a five mile stretch in the eastern part of Lake City, according to a press release from the wildlife refuge.
The retardant, primarily composed of monoammonium phosphate, is an odorless reddish substance that can be powdered or granular. If inhaled it can cause nasal and respiratory irritation, and exposed individuals should get to a clean air source. The retardant can also be washed away with water.
The plane belonged to Neptune Aviation, the largest private operator of fixed wing aerial tankers in the United States. Dan Snyder, the chief operating officer for Neptune Aviation, said that nobody has reported any breathing or medical issues due to the retardant drop.
“We’ve had a couple folks call to inquire about the retardant on their cars and homes, and we instructed them how to wash it off,” Snyder said.
The plane, British Aerospace 146, experienced a malfunction in its gate that prevented the retardant from being dropped over the fire, according to the Okefenokee press release. The gate then opened on the return flight when it dropped the plane’s contents over part of Lake City.
This is a rare occurrence for Neptune Aviation, which has an exclusive contract with the U.S. Forest Service, Snyder said.
“The swamp does burn on a cyclical basis, and it is good for the Okefenokee ecosystem,” Granary said.