425,000 Acres Burned

Fires in southeast Georgia are still burning.

GON Staff | June 1, 2007

The southeast Georgia fire that started on April 15 has been a round-the-clock effort for firefighters. On May 23 an estimated 425,000 acres had been burned.

Roughly 425,000 acres, including about half of south Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, has been blackened due to recent wildfires, the first of which broke out west of Waycross on April 15.

“There’s tons of log trucks moving through Ware County right now, and every one of them has some timber on it that’s charred to some extent,” said Steve Hampton with the Ware County Emergency Management Agency.

The fires have burnt through portions of Ware, Charlton and Clinch counties, and the Bugaboo Scrub Fire, which started in the Okefenokee Swamp by a lightning strike in early May, has burnt 240,000 acres alone.

Sportsmen now look to what’s in store for the near future of hunting. WRD Biologist Bobby Bond, who handles a good portion of the state’s turkey data, said there is no doubt a pile of turkey nests were lost to the fires.

“One-third to two-thirds of hens will re-nest in a given year looking at the information published here,” said Bobby.

The turkey studies Bobby is referring to didn’t take place in Georgia, but they were conducted on Eastern birds. However, a giant fire throws a whole different kink into re-nesting probabilities.

“The nesting habitat is pretty much going to be devastated in those areas,” said Bobby. “There’s a double-edged sword there; the nesting habitat got wiped out, but if she can ever get a nest off, the poult habitat will probably increase. You’ll have all those green shoots coming up that are going to produce a bunch of insects.”

With fewer poults, turkey hunters may feel the affects of fewer gobbling birds in the woods for several years.

“The other problem to the equation is the drought,” said Bobby. “Since these fires have started very little precipitation has gone on, so how much of that is going to sprout? This year, between the fire and the drought, down in that area the reproduction is probably going to be down.”

The result is a charred forest. Despite the current devastation, the large fire will help to clean the landscape and result in tons of browse for deer and turkey.

“Statewide our reproduction is going to be hammered thanks to the drought, but with the fire, they’re getting a double dose down there.”

Bobby said that when he participates in much smaller, prescribed burns on WMAs that animals are very quick to return to the burnt habitat.

“A lot of animals will leave that stand of woods; some animals will even stay within in the block if there’s low or wet areas,” said Bobby. “If you come back the next day (after a burn) it’s amazing to see how many animal tracks are in that block of woods. You’ll see turkey tracks, deer tracks, you name it.”

Plenty of soft- and hard-mast trees have been lost in the fire, but when rain finally falls in the drought-stricken region, it’ll create tons of deer browse.

“It’s probably going to be similar to Yellowstone,” said Bobby. “A number of years down the road elk numbers peaked and the quality of habitat increased once they got past the initial devastation.”

Jon Ambrose with WRD’s Nongame section said the fire won’t have long-term impact on critters.

“Generally the impacts are minimal,” said Jon. “Animals are pretty good about finding a place to get out of the way. Local populations can be impacted in the short term if you have some critters that just can’t get out of the way of the fire — you’ll have some mortality that’ll include birds that are nesting on the ground, some slow-moving skinks and things like that might be impacted.

“The more serious impacts may be from the drought. If you think about some of these isolated ponds where some of our species breed, we’ve had a series of bad years in terms of drought and they’ll impact those species.”

Folks living in southeast Georgia can expect more summer bear sightings than usual as a result of the massive fires. This time of year is the black bear mating season, a period when some male bears travel hundreds of miles looking for receptive females. The fires will push some bears out even farther, into places they’re not usually seen.

Editor’s Note: WRD Fisheries Region Supervisor Bert Deener provided photos.

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