The fires' erratic behavior has primarily been caused by an extreme drought, not seen in these parts in 50 years. Meanwhile, atmospheric inversions have pushed smoke close to the ground, hampering surveillance and creating confusion for firefighters. An unusually low jet stream is carrying embers up to two miles ahead, and sometimes to the flanks, of the fire. Smoke plumes reaching 30,000 feet have suddenly collapsed, "blowing out" the fire in all directions.
"Georgia is probably setting some all-time record highs on the amount of energy that can be released from these fuels, and that's not good," says Gary Curcio, a fire behavior analyst with the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources.
Forestry officials here suggest that lagging resources have also contributed to the difficulty in extinguishing the blaze.
Timber companies have begun to outsource plantation management, reducing the number of privately owned firefighting equipment from 180 to 20 in the past three years. That leaves the state with an increased responsibility to protect corporately owned lands, which bring in about $560 million in tax revenue each year.
Moreover, a Georgia State University study from 2003 showed that, when adjusting for inflation (but not for drought), the Georgia Forestry Commission should be receiving more than $60 million a year to prevent and fight fires. Instead, it will receive $42 million if Gov. Sonny Perdue signs next year's budget, a 9 percent increase over the previous year. In comparison, the south Georgia fires are expected to cost $42 million by the time they're put out. The US government will pay 75 percent of the firefighting costs.
The commission has lost 207 rangers, mostly to attrition, in the past 16 years. This week, local milk trucks were hauling water to holding ponds, and prison inmate fire departments were carrying out "structure protection" to save homes. While overall federal funding for state fire planning efforts has increased since the establishment of the National Fire Plan in 2000, money toward clearing brush and other fire mitigation measures on non-government lands has decreased by $20 million a year since 2004. That tends to affect Southern states like Georgia especially, experts say, since more than 90 percent of wildfires here occur on private pine plantations.