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Six weeks later, Georgia fires still raging

The state's inability to keep the fires from rushing out of the Okefenokee Swamp is kindling a debate over lagging forestry budgets.

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Firebreaks plowed by bulldozers into the soil can't slow the stampede of flames through the pine stands. At times, whirling "fire tornadoes" appear above the towering crowns, forcing smokechasers to run for their lives.

Six weeks after they first flared, the massive forest fires dogging south Georgia and north Florida remain largely out of control.

"It's frustrating, to say the least, that we can't get our hands around it," says Kym Stephens, a Georgia Forestry Commission firefighter.

Wildland firefighters in the South extinguish more wildfires – 45,000 a year – than any other region. In that light, the demoralizing effect that the Okefenokee Swamp fires are having on veteran firefighters is drawing attention beyond these pine plantations.

The state's inability to keep the fire from rushing out of the swamp and into the pine lands is kindling a debate over lagging forestry budgets, the impact of climate change on fire-suppression tactics, and the trend of timber companies divesting from the woods, taking manpower and equipment with them.

"This fire will have a national effect on how we look at fire behavior, how we account for our forestry budgets, as well as the pure economic effect it will have for a long time in this region," says Robert Farris, interim director of the Georgia Forestry Commission in Dry Branch.

Sparked in mid-April by a combination of downed wires and lightning, the amalgam of fires now known as the Georgia Bay Complex – Bugaboo Scrub, Sweat Farm, Big Turnaround, and Kneeknocker – has already burned more than a half-million acres, exceeding the enormous fires that burst through the region in 1953 and 1954. The latest fires were declared a federal disaster April 17, entitling the state to federal aid.

In an average year, wildfires burn 8,000 acres in Georgia; the Sweat Farm fire alone burned 10,000 acres in one night last week.

Clapboard forest cabins and brick ranch homes are being evacuated daily; 21 homes have burned down. The smoke has periodically shut down entire interstates. And on windy days, the plume has traveled miles, obscuring city skylines as far away as Mississippi and North Carolina. Seven firefighters have been injured since the fires first broke out.

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