West Mims Fire headlines fade away; firefight and drought continues

Above: A helicopter carries a bucket of water on a drop at the fire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo via InciWeb, posted May 14, 2017. 

Remember the West Mims Fire?

The massive blaze that generated national media attention for days, threatened a Georgia town and sent ash falling over densely populated cities has all-but-faded away for most of the country. Aided by Mother Nature, crews continue to gain the upper hand on the 152,000-acre lightning-sparked wildfire, which was 60 percent contained as of this weekend.

Seven helicopters, two air tankers, 135 wildland fire engines, 62 bulldozers, five hand crews, and 1,025 personnel were assigned to the blaze Sunday.

“The fire remained relatively inactive,” officials said in an update.

While “inactive” is the name of the game for the West Mims Fire — and for spring fire situations across much of the U.S. inundated with spring storms and abundant moisture — it’s anything but quiet in the Sunshine State.

Twenty-eight fires in excess of 100 acres burned over the weekend within Florida Fire Service jurisdiction, charring 36,000 acres, according to state figures.

Such blazes blackened 109,415 acres of land so far this year.

Fire danger indices were “high” or “very high” in more than a dozen Florida counties this weekend. Citrus growers “are irrigating daily to keep moisture on the trees,” the USDA reported, and “ditches and canals are very dry in all [citrus] areas.” Plus, livestock producers are having to have hay shipped in as a result of the dry conditions.

And even though some rain was in the forecast for some Florida residents, state officials said they’re not out of danger by any stretch of the imagination.

“We are buckled up for a very long and very hot wildfire season,” said Adam Putnam, the commissioner of agriculture in Florida, according to Bloomberg News. 

Florida drought monitor report May 18, 2017.
U.S. Drought Monitor report May 18, 2017.

Meanwhile, others around the country are enjoying a relatively unusual drought-free reality as June nears.

Feet — yes, feet — of snow fell in Colorado and across the Rocky Mountains late last week as a potent spring storm plowed through the region. And places accustomed to persistent drought, like California, continue to bask in aftermath of an especially soggy winter.

“An active weather pattern continued to result in widespread showers, with some of the heaviest rain falling across the Plains, Midwest, and mid-South,” the U.S. Drought Monitor reported last week.

“Another area of significant precipitation stretched across the middle and northern Atlantic States, while showers also dotted the Northwest. In contrast, mostly dry weather prevailed from California to the lower Rio Grande Valley, as well as large sections of the lower Southeast.”

National drought snapshot, via U.S. Drought Monitor May 18, 2017, report.
National drought snapshot, via U.S. Drought Monitor May 18, 2017, report.

Though hot temperatures are forecast for parts of California early this week, a cold front is expected to move through the Pacific Northwest, bringing cooler conditions and more moisture, according to the National Weather Service. 

Floridians in the meantime will have to keep waiting for the rainy seasons to finally begin, later this month and into June.

“It’s kind of like an ugly cycle. Hot breeds dry and dry breeds hot,” meteorologist Grant Gilmore told the Tampa Bay Times last week. “…It doesn’t look like the cycle breaks in a big way any time soon.”

Firefighter rescues fawn from West Mims Fire; extreme conditions persist

With Georgia’s West Mims Fire now making continual headlines, photos of smoke plumes and falling ash are seemingly everywhere. That means this photo from a couple weeks ago is sure to make the rounds, too.

Published April 28 on InciWeb, the shot of a firefighter carrying a fawn to safety quickly got buried in a tide of photos showing the fire’s massive smoke plumes and stories about the front jumping containment lines. Ash fell on parts of downtown Jacksonville, Florida, over the weekend.

The West Mims Fire burns along Highway 94, near St. George, in this photo posted Monday on InciWeb.
The West Mims Fire burns along Highway 94, near St. George, in this photo posted Monday on InciWeb.

According to the latest updates, the West Mims Fire has burned more than 140,000 acres. Another 7,000 acres has burned by Monday afternoon, and flame lengths up to 150 feet were reported.

Tuesday’s outlook was anything but promising.

“The fire will be fuel-driven and plume-dominated, meaning that when tall columns develop, they could abruptly collapse, sending downburst winds in all directions. Two columns could also develop at the same time,” officials said. “All this extreme fire behavior will create very dangerous conditions for firefighters.”

Satellite time-lapse of West Mims Fire smoke

The new Goes-16 satellite that is still not fully operational captured stunning imagery of the smoke plume from the West Mims Fire blowing over Florida and the Atlantic Ocean.

And the view from the ground:

West Mims Fire in Georgia sends ash to Jacksonville, Florida

The sprawling West Mims Fire that has been burning since April, largely in a south Georgia swamp, broke containment lines on Saturday and sent ash falling as far away as downtown Jacksonville, Florida. 

The lightning-caused fire was reported on April 6 in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and has burned more than 135,000 acres. Crews on Saturday dealt with gusty winds and relative humidity levels around 18 percent, which drove the blaze past containment lines and fanned it farther east.

“The fire moved aggressively to the east and southeast against an enhanced air and ground attack today,” officials wrote in a Saturday night InciWeb update. 

The fire and a blanket of falling ash on Saturday unnerved some residents near downtown Jacksonville, the Florida Times-Union reported. 

Similar conditions were forecast for Sunday, and evacuation orders remained in place. Additional heavy air tankers were expected to arrive on Sunday from California and Montana to assist the approximately 535 personnel assigned to the incident.

The West Mims Fire remains just 12 percent contained. No injuries have been reported. Full containment isn’t expected until Nov. 1.

West Mims Fire burns in Florida and Georgia

map West Mims Fire
The West Mims Fire is burning on the border of Georgia and Florida. The red and yellow squares represent heat detected by a satellite, the most recent (red) was seen at 2:19 p.m. EDT April 10, 2017. (click to enlarge)

(Originally published at 5:20 p.m. EDT April 10, 2017.)

Since the West Mims Fire started from a lightning strike on April 6 it has burned about 3,800 acres, growing substantially on Sunday and Monday.

The fire is 16 miles west of St. George, Georgia at the southern end of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and on private land just north of Florida Highway 2 on both sides of the Georgia/Florida state line.

Most fires in the Refuge, which is a Wilderness Area, are allowed to burn with little interference from humans, but with it on private land outside the Refuge firefighters are taking action to stop the spread.

Personnel with the Georgia Forestry Commission and Florida Forest Service are working the fire along with federal firefighters from the Refuge.

Below is an excerpt from an April 9 press release, but with the rapid growth of the fire on the 9th and 10th, it appears that fire managers have stepped up their suppression activity since the reported April 8 meeting:

…A meeting was held the morning of April 8 to discuss strategy. Representatives were present from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Forestry Commission, U.S. Forest Service, Florida Forest Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and Baker County Emergency Management. Monitoring of the West Mims Fire will continue over the next 48 hours. Personnel with the Florida Forest Service at John M. Bethea State Forest will refresh fire lines on the southeast corner off Perimeter Road.

There will be a follow-up meeting on Friday, April 14 of the primary responders to re-evaluate the status of the wildfire and to discuss future strategy of attack.

west mims fire
An undated and uncaptioned photo posted on the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Facebook page on April 9, 2017.