FARGO -- The smoky haze that covered Lowndes and surrounding counties on Monday was the product of wildfires in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and residents can expect more smoke, depending on wind direction, until much-needed rainfall helps douse the blaze.

The Georgia Forestry Commission is fighting three wildfires -- sparked by lightning and fanned by drought conditions -- that have burned nearly 29,000 acres.

The South Health District Office for Public Health was considering a smoke alert for the area, and Dr. Lynne Feldman cautioned those with chronic respiratory problems to be aware of the conditions.

"Individuals with chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema should take special precautions," she said. "These persons should attempt to limit their exposure to the smoke by staying indoors, using air conditioning or air filters and limiting outdoor activities. People experiencing increased symptoms should consult their physician."

Feldman said normally healthy people could experience irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, but should not develop acute problems due to the smoke.

Most of the smoke in Lowndes County was generated by the "Blackjack 02" fire, which Buck Kline with the Georgia Forestry Commission said had been burning for almost two weeks. That blaze spread rapidly over the weekend and had consumed 20,600 acres in the south central portion of the swamp according to information from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Kline -- Lowndes County's chief fire ranger, who is in Fargo -- said 85 people were battling the blaze on the Fargo side of the refuge, and that the group was making good progress.

"It's going real good," he said. "We've got some more resources coming in today as the swamp burns. We're protecting the property around the swamp so that when the fire comes out of the swamp, we can control it so that it doesn't take too much time and resources to fight it."

The fire is almost impossible to fight in the swamp because it is difficult to get equipment and personnel close enough, Kline said. Instead, firefighters have relied on helicopters to drop water on the area, while preparing fire breaks around the perimeter of the refuge.

Most of the land surrounding the refuge to the west is timber land with planted pine trees, which could be problematic if the blaze escapes the confines of the swamp.

"Fire moves quicker in pine," Kline said. "The fuel load is heavier, if the timber is big, and young plantations burn faster and are harder to catch."

Firefighters are using a technique called "stripping" in the plantations where they plow down between the rows of trees, creating fire breaks to keep any flare-ups under control. These swamp fires were feeding on pine trees and small bushes and trees unlike past Okefenokee fires which used peat for fuel.

A lack of strong wind has helped the effort thus far, Kline said, but what firefighters really need is a good dose of rain.

"We need some good rainfall," he said. "A half-inch won't do it. An inch probably won't help us. We need some significant rain. (The fire) is a natural process. The swamp burns, and we have to protect everything around it."

Only 3 percent of the refuge is burning and all refuge entrances remain open. A temporary flight restriction from the Federal Aviation Administration is the only safety measure in place.

While the state implemented an outdoor burning ban in the metro Atlanta area, no restrictions are in place for South Georgia. Kline said residents must still have a permit and should call the local Forestry Commission to check on burn conditions -- especially with so many resources tied up in the Okefenokee fires.

"We do not have burn ban right now, but in the very near future it may come to that," he said. "We have a lot of smoke in area, and people need to be careful. They need to keep their headlights on and watch for children in the morning, because it will be smoky for a while."

Smoke from the fire was reported as far away as Montgomery, Ala., on

Monday as part of an unusual weather pattern which blew strong winds from east to west.

The blazes are the worst in the area since similar fires burned huge swaths of land in South Georgia and North Florida in the spring of 2000.

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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