Rocky Chesser receives USFWS Fire Safety Award

Rocky Chesser, receives award
Rocky Chesser (center), Maintenance Supervisor at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge receives the USFWS National Fire Safety Award for 2013 from John Segar, Chief, Branch of Fire Management (right), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Service Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner (left). USFWS photo.

The following information was released by John Segar, Chief, Branch of Fire Management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:


“I am very proud to announce that Rocky Chesser from Okefenokee NWR was awarded the Service’s first Annual Fire Safety Award. Rocky is being recognized for his consistent leadership, professionalism, longstanding safety record, and significant contributions to the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge Fire Management Program. Specifically:

  • During the Honey Prairie Fire, Rocky was engaged for the entire year, from the first day to the last in roles from Resource Advisor to Incident Commander. During this marathon incident Rocky provided calm, consistent leadership and was able to maintain fire safety from early initial attack to large scale management roles as the fire progressed.
  • Rocky’s proactive approach prior to the fire working with the GOAL partners and the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) were key to assuring the refuge was prepared for supporting such a large scale fire event.
  • Rocky was instrumental in coordinating large scale rehab projects such as hazardous tree removal project of approximately 50 miles of canoe and boating trails in the wilderness. He worked with contractors in promoting a safety culture and assured that all safety standards were maintained.
  • Rocky is one of the region’s most knowledgeable heavy equipment instructors and hosts annual training. He is the “go to expert” on assuring that equipment meets all safety standards and is ready for safe fire operations. When the refuge fire program underwent a major transition and the district FMO position was moved off site, Rocky stepped up more than ever to keep the fire program running strong and safe. His leadership, positive attitude, and commitment to safety helped the program adapt well through this transition.
  • Rocky also coordinates annual Fire Refresher Training between state, private, and federal firefighters and equipment operators in the Okefenokee area.”


You may remember the Honey Prairie Fire. Started by a lightning strike, it burned 309,200 acres between April 30, 2011 and April 16, 2012 in southern Georgia and northern Florida. In one six-day period in May, 2011 it grew by 81,000 acres.

Honey Prairie Fire April 29
Honey Prairie Fire May 1, 2011, one day after it started. USF&WS photo.
Firefighters conducting firing operations
Firefighters conducting firing operations on the Honey Prairie Fire. USFWS photo.

Honey Prairie fire update

Honey Prairie fire 2011-06-29
File photo of the Honey Prairie fire, June 29, 2011

The Honey Prairie fire in southeast Georgia started almost four months ago and has blackened over 303,000 acres. It has been going so long that areas that burned months ago have started to burn again.

The incident management team released the following information on Sunday:


Honey Prairie Fire: 303,688 acres, 70% contained

Honey Prairie Fire Rekindles

Four months into fighting the Honey Prairie Fire, it came back to haunt firefighters again. A short radio transmission heard on Saturday evening, 8/20/11 about 5:00 PM indicated that firefighters in the northwest portion of the Refuge, just northeast of Fargo, Ga. reported a fire had been located on the Refuge. They indicated that it was a re-burn fire. That is, the fire had already burned through this area weeks ago. The fuels that were left behind by this initial burn (dead leaves, pine straw, twigs and limbs) had re-ignited in an area close to a fireline that narrowly separated a stand of commercial pine trees from the boundary line of the Refuge.  Fortunately, a fire crew, responsible for initial attack, was staged close by and immediately began to move into position to fight the fire back into the swamp. In addition to the initial attack fire crew, the radio call also requested the aid of a medium helicopter capable of dropping numerous buckets of water in an attempt to halt the fires escalating heat and size.  The pilot of the helicopter successfully dropped 40+ buckets of water before running low on fuel. A second medium helicopter replaced the first ship and continued with another 40+ buckets of water. With daylight subsiding rapidly about 8:00 PM the helicopters ceased their operations and returned to their base of operations in Waycross. The initial attack ground crew them monitored the area for any signs of continued life before returning to their base camp for the night.

A reconnaissance flight the next morning, (8/21/11) observed that many burned and unburned areas in the northwestern corner of the refuge were showing renewed signs of life. Numerous plumes of smoke and open flames dotted the area. Fire fighting resources have been pre-positioned along the northwestern edge of the refuge to battle the fire back into the refuge wherever and whenever it tries to escape. Southwest winds on 8/21/11 will push smoke into the Waycross/Hoboken area and beyond on Sunday. A predicted wind shift to the West on Monday 8/22/11 will move smoke toward Kingfisher Landing and Folkston with predicted secondary smoke impacts to Camden County and Coastal Georgia.

The Honey Prairie Fire is definitely not out yet!

Honey Prairie fire has burned 128,000 acres in Georgia and Florida

The Honey Prairie fire, burning in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Florida, made a big push to the north on Friday, prompting an aggressive aerial attack, but rain on Saturday slowed the spread. After the forecast of damaging winds and hail, fire managers relocated the aerial resources. Thunderstorms with strong, gusty winds and lightning moved through the area Saturday, bringing an average of 1/2″ to 1″ of rain across the fire with a few areas receiving 1″ to 1.5″. Incident fire crews quickly contained one detected lightning strike that burned approximately half an acre.

Here is an excerpt from an article at that was written on May 13. (The fire has now burned 128,861 acres as of Sunday morning.)

The effort to contain the Honey Prairie Wildfire in the Okefenokee Swamp has turned into an aerial battle.

Five helicopters and airplane tankers were dumping water onto the northern edge of the 104,936-acre fire in hopes of preventing its spread to Billys Island, one of the highest and driest areas in the swamp where it could race north, Georgia Forestry Commission spokesman Byron Haire said.

Officials directing operations had decided to let the fire burn inside the swamp and contain it once it reached the boundaries of the 430,000-acre refuge. But Friday turned out to be a day when the fire taxed that strategy riding southerly winds into places officials didn’t want it to go.

The incident response team used helicopters to douse the leading edge of the fire to prevent it from going around or jumping the Suwannee Canal and areas of open water, Haire said.

But the fire jumped the Suwannee Canal, and Thursday night a spot fire developed on the southern end of Billys Island, he said.

Below is a map showing the progression of the Honey Prairie fire as of Saturday:

Map of Honey Prairie fire May 14
Map of Honey Prairie fire May 14 produced by the Incident Management Team.

Swamp fires continue to burn in the southeast

Two large fires continue to burn through swamps in the southeastern United States, providing serious challenges for firefighters who have difficulty safely accessing the fire perimeters to take suppression action. Sometimes fires in swamps burn for months, or until heavy, long-duration rains fall, in spite of the best efforts of firefighters.

The Pains Bay fire is burning on the coast of North Carolina in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It grew by 571 acres on Tuesday bringing the total to 21,563 blackened acres. Burnout operations on the northeast side continued on Wednesday.

Here is a map showing the perimeter of the Pains Bay fire (provided by firefighters), along with symbols representing heat detected by satellites.

Pains Bay Fire map 1900 May 10
Pains Bay Fire map, 1900 May 10. Click to enlarge. MODIS, Google

The Honey Prairie fire, mostly in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, grew by 13,174 acres on Tuesday bring the total to 96,408 acres in both Georgia and Florida.

The Florida Division of Forestry staff along with support from local timber companies, Georgia Forestry Commission and Refuge resources assigned to the fire had a very busy day Tuesday along the southern flank near the Florida- Georgia border. Fuel reduction firing operations of forested areas North of Florida Highway 2 were initiated to expand the size of this existing fire break.

The northeastern portion of the fire is approximately one mile from Chesser Island and 12 miles from Folkston, Georgia. The westernmost flank of the fire is approximately eight miles east of Fargo, Georgia.

This map of the Honey Prairie fire also shows the perimeter of the fire (provided by firefighters) along with symbols representing heat detected by satellites.

Map Honey Prairie fire 1800 May 10
Map Honey Prairie fire, 1800 May 10. The gray line is the Georgia/Florida border. Click to enlarge. MODIS/Google

Here is a photo of the fire taken the day after it started on April 28.

Honey Prairie Fire April 29
Honey Prairie Fire April 29, one day after it started. USF&WS

Honey Prairie fire adds 81,000 acres in six days

The Honey Prairie fire in south Georgia increased by 19,521 acres on Monday and by 10:00 a.m. Tuesday added another 9,556 acres, for a total of 90,990 acres. The fire has grown by 81,310 acres since Wednesday, May 4.

The map of the fire shows that it has burned across the state line from Georgia into Florida. It is still burning primarily within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge but has crossed that boundary too, moving out of the refuge on the east side.

Map Honey Prairie fire 1000 May 10
Map of the Honey Prairie fire, 10:00 a.m., May 10, 2011

It is being managed by a Georgia Type 2 Incident Management Team under a unified command between the Georgia Forestry Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Florida Division of Forestry has made preparations for the fire. Thinking that a fire would come out of the swamp eventually, last fall they conducted some prescribed fires between Highway 2 and a railroad north of the highway, removing fuel that would be available to a fire.

In June, 2002, I was on the Blackjack Bay fire that burned in the same area, and it also crossed the border into Florida. Here are a couple of photos of that fire.

Blackjack Bay fire 6-2002
Blackjack Bay fire June, 2002
Blackjack Bay fire June, 2002
Blackjack Bay fire June, 2002


A May 11 update on the fire can be found here.