It had all the makings of a Hollywood war movie: hundreds of people on the front lines, fighting an uncontrollable, raging enemy; scores of other people at base camp, mapping battle plans, barking radio commands and tending to machinery and stalwart soldiers; frightened residents fleeing their homes as the menace creeps closer; worried relatives back home praying for relief and safety for their loved ones. Trouble is, there was no script or special-effects team behind these daunting scenes; the antagonist and the human heroes in this story are real.
It was springtime 2 years ago when Georgia and Florida experienced the largest fires in each state’s history. For nearly 2 months, the blazes tore through some 560,000 contiguous acres. Three fires–Sweat Farm Road, Big Turnaround and Bugaboo Scrub–joined forces to form what became known as the Georgia Bay Complex. It went on to consume most of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the John Bethea State Forest in Florida and parts of Florida’s Osceola National Forest, along with more than 100,000 acres of private lands in both states. In total, an estimated 10,000 evacuation days occurred. More forestland was consumed, more timber was ruined and more financial losses were felt from these fires than has ever been recorded in Georgia state history.
How It All Started
April 16, 2007, began as a busy day for the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC). Several large wildland fires were already burning on parched, drought-stricken land in southeast Georgia. Several days of high winds and low relative humidity contributed to the action, with new fire starts occurring each day.
At approximately 1215 hrs, a wildfire was reported on Sweat Farm Road off of Georgia Highway 122 West in Ware County. High winds had caused a tree to fall onto a power line, and the subsequent sparks ignited the surrounding brush. Immediately, the Ware County Fire Department (WCFD) dispatched two engines and notified the GFC, which dispatched two Type 2 tractor/plow suppression units, one Type 2 helicopter with a 300-gallon Bambi bucket and the chief forest ranger for the GFC assigned to Ware County.
At the Scene
Upon arriving on Sweat Farm Road at about 1235 hrs, WCFD personnel determined that about 5 acres were involved; however, the fire was burning in heavy understory in a pine plantation and was beginning to torch out the tops of the pines with a rapid rate of spread.
Initially, the fire wasn’t encroaching on any wildland/urban interface (WUI) areas, and no structures were in immediate danger. Firefighters used the tractor/plow suppression units with aerial support from the helicopter to plow firebreaks along the right flank of the fire and then curve the break around the head of the fire to stop its forward progression. In advance of the fire, there was an open, recently plowed field that was expected to provide firefighters with a barrier to help keep the fire spread in check. Containment was the priority.
Unfortunately, air resources detected spot fires ahead of the open field and downwind from the main fire, which had grown so intense within the first 2 hours that it became unsafe for personnel and equipment to continue working directly in front of it. At this point, conditions were growing increasingly dangerous. Previous attempts to stop the main fire had failed, tactics had to be changed and homes were now in the direct path of the fire, which was racing toward dwellings in an area known as Wahoma, south of Waycross. Over the next 2 hours, the fire continued to advance toward Wahoma and approach Ruskin Elementary School, which was located just to the east and north of the main spotting activity.
In response to the growing situation, command called for additional engines to begin structure protection tactics. Additional tractor plow suppression units and forestry supervisors were also ordered to begin structure protection in WUI areas.
From Wildland Fire to WUI Crisis
What started out as a small brush fire quickly transformed into a massive, raging WUI inferno. Heavy smoke and flames blocked roadways and threatened a local railroad. A giant smoke column could be seen rising up into the air from miles away. People began to panic; realizing that firefighters’ efforts to control the blaze were unsuccessful, many in the fire’s path fled in their cars, blindly driving down smoke-filled streets.
Personnel faced with the task of evacuating people had to first identify escape routes that weren’t cut off by the fire. Working together via radio communication, local fire and law enforcement agencies located several safe routes and went door to door informing residents of where to go. Fortunately, county officials also had the foresight to send in school buses early to evacuate Ruskin Elementary School.
As evacuations took place, the fire continued in an easterly direction. The WCFD ordered additional structure protection resources from surrounding counties and established a structure protection check-in and staging area at Ware County High School, approximately 5 miles from the main fire. The GFC continued to order more suppression resources throughout the afternoon and into the evening. In all, 17 agencies were called in on that first day, including the Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Emergency Management, Georgia State Patrol and Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
By early evening, the fire had torn through the Wahoma residential area, leaving only a red metal roof atop Rankin Middle School to brighten a vast expanse of blackened rubble. By 1730 hrs, the fire had spotted across U.S. Highway 84 and was advancing to the east. By 2000 hrs, a spot fire was detected by aircraft over 1 mile in advance of the main fire that was estimated to be 500 acres alone. The main fire was estimated to have burned through 5,000 acres. No percentage of containment was given at that time.
By midnight, the fire was 8 ½ miles long and 1 mile wide.
State of Emergency
As noted, drought had severely impacted the state of Georgia in 2007, causing 40 wildfires that consumed more than 100 acres each. But the behavior of the Georgia Bay Complex was unlike anything the state had seen before. On the first day, the fire spotted 2 miles, carried by embers on heavy winds. Flames reached 100 feet high, jumped a highway and went on to burn almost 9,000 acres.
In answer to these startling statistics, both Ware County and GFC personnel activated mutual aid with sister states, the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others, and began trying to preplan unknown events ahead. Georgia’s Governor, Sonny Perdue, declared a state of emergency in a 21-county portion of southeast Georgia while fire officials deployed Georgia’s Type II incident management team.
Day 2: Evacuations Take Priority
By the second day, the immediate WUI emergency had subsided, but weather patterns were holding their course, and more residential areas and two public-use areas were in the fire’s path. To ensure the continuation of safe and effective evacuation procedures, incident personnel had developed a more organized evacuation plan. They established “trigger points” so that once the fire reached a pre-identified landmark or geographical location, or if the fire’s intensity approached a certain level (rate of spread, flame length, spotting distance, etc.), volunteer or mandatory evacuation orders could be issued.
Evacuation plans, and the subsequent actions taken by fire personnel, continued to emerge and improve throughout the day. The GFC organized fire prevention teams that went door to door informing residents in the path of the fire about established evacuation plans, locations of established shelters, what they could do to prepare and points of contact for fire information.
Additional evacuations were carried out in Astoria, Braganza, Race Pond, Carter, Swamo, Obedia’s Swamp Park and Manor. The Deep Creek Community and Taylor, Fla., were also evacuated.
Fire personnel not only assisted residents, they also took great care to protect homes and other structures. The WCFD sent personnel out ahead of the fire to triage structures in immediate danger, to perform assessments on structures that would become threatened in the next 24—48 hours and to obtain GPS readings so that residential locations in the fire area could be mapped out in detail, a task that provided invaluable information. Not only were numerous homes saved, but the information retrieved via GPS was used for preplanning future operations. Incoming personnel responding to the fire from other locations who weren’t familiar with the area, as well as fire prevention teams who were out working in advance of the fire, were able to quickly familiarize themselves with the area and prepare people and homes for the oncoming fire.
In Waycross, fire personnel from the GFC and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, as well as information officers from each incident management team, formed a joint fire information center where officials dispersed information to emergency management teams in both Georgia and Florida. Nationally certified fire prevention teams held town meetings to inform community leaders about the fire’s position and the possibility of further evacuations. Teams were also deployed into threatened neighborhoods to share information about Firewise practices that could be used in the short term.
What Went Right
Although thousands of acres, eight homes and 301 other structures (pump houses, shelters, garages, hunting camps, travel trailers, abandoned mobile homes, etc.) were destroyed during the Georgia Bay Complex Fire, some good did come of the experience. For example:
- Multiple agencies, including the WCFD, the GFC and law enforcement, worked together to successfully plan, organize and carry out evacuations.
- Fire officials also worked closely with local government officials and took advantage of local knowledge to disseminate fire information to the public, which generally cooperated to produce a successful overall evacuation process.
- Once fire officials realized the initial attack on the fire wasn’t successful, and it became clear that the fire would continue unchecked, they immediately employed more organized evacuation and structure-assessment processes.
- No serious injuries or accidents occurred to local residents in and around the fire area.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to come out of the 2007 South Georgia wildfires: the importance of not only being properly prepared to fight large WUI fires, but also convincing residents to prepare themselves as well.
There will come a day when a WUI fire out-performs firefighters’ ability to protect citizens. Because of this inevitability, the fire service as a whole must educate civilians about the dangers of large WUI fires and how they can do their part to keep them at bay. Civilians must be aware that WUI conflagrations are very similar in magnitude to other natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes, which are completely out of the fire department’s control. Other lessons include:
- The quicker you become organized, the better. Creating a unified command structure early in an incident is critical to not only the operational aspects, but also to the efficiency of the overall process.
- Request additional resources immediately. During the Georgia Bay Complex, officials ran short of state-level staff early on and could’ve asked for more assistance from sister states accordingly.
- Create a joint information center. Doing this allows fire officials to work more closely with the media, keeping them informed so they can, in turn, help keep the public informed.
- Train with other departments on large WUI fire tactics and strategies so they know what to do and what to expect. First responders must be on the same page when it comes to applying the National Incident Management System, pay scales, food and lodging, performance expectations, etc.
- Articulate an honest perspective of an escalating WUI situation to internal leadership teams as well as any and all cooperators that will become involved in the incident.
The bottom line: During the Georgia Bay Complex of fires, forestry personnel and fire personnel hadn’t envisioned working together 24/7 for weeks on end, which affected their performance on the fireground. Everyone was pretty tired and stressed about halfway through the ordeal. To combat this, Georgia officials are analyzing the forest conditions, weather, fuels, etc. that led up to this fire in the hopes that they’ll be able to see the next “Big One” coming, and can preplan with the troops accordingly.
At the peak of the Georgia Bay Complex, more than 1,500 people were working to control the blazes. People from 44 states, Canada and Puerto Rico joined in the fight. Cooperative efforts of state, federal and local organizations, along with community leaders and a crush of volunteers, did their best to keep damage to a minimum and support the troops.
This fire event was unlike any in Georgia state history. Firefighters who worked the blazes will likely tell their tales for a long, long time. Today, the GFC continues to help landowners manage the long-term effects of the fire. But although the damage done by the fire was extensive, and the Georgian landscape has been irreversibly altered, fire personnel and the residents of both Georgia and Florida are now far better prepared to face the next big fight.