Wildfires close Okefenokee refuge over holiday

By: The Associated Press
By: The Associated Press

FOLKSTON, Ga. (AP) — Wildfires burning in southeast Georgia have forced the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to remain closed to tourists during what's usually a busy holiday weekend.

Rangers at the refuge, which draws about 400,000 visitors in a full year, typically see a noticeable bump during the Fourth of July weekend as tourists head outdoors for boating, fishing and nature watching, said Art Webster, the refuge's supervisory ranger.

The Okefenokee refuge near the Georgia-Florida state line has been closed to the public for nearly two months since a lighting strike sparked the vast Honey Prairie fire in late April. The blaze has burned about 450 square miles, mostly inside the refuge boundaries. Two other fires just outside the swamp have consumed more than 60 square miles.

Recent rains have slowed the fire, but rangers say it's still too dangerous to reopen the refuge. Firefighters insist it will take several days of sustained, soaking rain to extinguish the fires.

"We know Mother Nature will intervene and we hope it will be very soon," said Curt McCasland, the refuge manager.

After several days of relative calm, the fire roared back to life briefly last weekend as winds from a thunderstorm stoked the flames. The fire ended up destroying much of the refuge's 4,000-feet-long boardwalk, a popular tourist attraction built by staffers in the 1960s.

(Copyright 2011, The Associated Press)

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