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Wildfire threatens unspoiled Georgia island rich in history

Wildfire threatens pristine Georgia island with a rich history

Smoke rises from the burnt landscape on the north side of St. Catherine’s Island on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Four fires were sparked on the island by lightning strikes on June 11. Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News via AP

Lightning-induced wildfires have scorched hundreds of acres on this pristine island off the coast of Georgia, where crews compete for the ruins of plantations, the remains of a 16th-century Spanish mission, and archaeological sites that have yielded human artifacts thousands of years old.

St. Catherines Island has long been valued as an ecological and historical coastal treasure. Giant sea turtles nest on the beaches and ring-tailed lemurs, brought to the island decades ago, live in the dense forest. On the island, about 40 miles south of Savannah, slave quarters made from tabby oyster shells survive, as does the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Protected by a private foundation for decades, St. Catherines Island has seen about 15% of its land area burn down since a lightning storm sparked fires on June 11. Severe drought left the island tinder dry, allowing flames to spread quickly. Columns of black smoke are visible from the mainland, and raging flames reaching the treetops have sometimes burned near the beach.

“We have an untouched history, so we’re doing everything we can to protect that,” Michael Halderson, the island’s manager and only full-time resident, told reporters Wednesday during a boat trip through the island’s perimeter, where smoldering fires burn thick and thin. smoke formed between blackened trees.

The island fires are among more than 30,000 that have burned about 4,600 square miles nationwide during one of the worst starts the US has seen during wildfire season.

Wildfire threatens pristine Georgia island with a rich history

Byron Haire, area fire management officer for area 8 of the Georgia Forestry Commission, dispatches his crew from the dock on St. Catherine’s Island on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Haire and his crew are fighting 4 separate fires on the island, which were caused by lightning strikes on Saturday 11 June. Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News via AP

Halderson and his small staff of seven worked nonstop for days to contain the flames, until they realized four separate fires were burning across the island’s 6,700 acres (2,700 hectares).

Help arrived last week from the Georgia Forestry Commission, which mobilized about 15 forest firefighters with bulldozers to plow fires, as well as planes and a helicopter equipped to dump water onto the flames. Another 25 firefighters were expected to arrive on Thursday.

Crews have not attacked the fires with trench-digging crews as aggressively as they normally would, given the island’s history as a treasure trove of historical treasures.

Over the decades, archaeologists have located the site where Catholic missionaries from Spain established a church and settlement on the island in the 1570s. Others have found evidence that humans lived here 4,500 years ago. In total, the island has yielded more than 1 million artifacts.

Concerned that heavy plows could destroy undiscovered buried treasure, firefighters in some areas have taken a slower approach, using bulldozers to scrape just inches off the ground — enough to clear grasses and vegetation so they can slow the spread of approaching fire.

Wildfire threatens pristine Georgia island with a rich history

Smoke rises from the burnt landscape on the north side of St. Catherine’s Island on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. On June 11, a thunderstorm started four fires on the island. Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News via AP

Areas of the island considered more sensitive are being doused with water from the air, said Byron Haire, a spokesman for the forestry commission team.

“We want to stop this fire, but we just need to slow down,” Haire said, adding that crews are trying to “keep a light hand on the land versus the heavy hand of a machine digging up a lot of dirt.”

Haire estimates the fires have burned up to 1,000 acres (405 hectares) so far. Low humidity and unpredictable winds have made fighting the fires more difficult.

Still, the crews managed to keep the flames out of the island’s grounds, which house visiting researchers and a radio tower vital for communications. Also protected in that area is the former home of Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who bought the island in 1766 and lived there until he died in 1777 after being mortally wounded in a duel.

Flames crept close to the ruins of the tabby plantation on the south side of the island until a helicopter blew them with water dumped from a giant bucket, Halderson said. He said fires were burning through the Spanish mission site, where planted palm trees trace the footprint of the church that stood there centuries ago, but appeared to do little damage.

Wildfire threatens pristine Georgia island with a rich history

Smoke rises from the charred remains of trees on the north side of St. Catherine’s Island, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Since June 11, four separate fires have burned on the island. The Georgia Forestry Commission is working to control the spread of the fire while preserving the island’s historic significance. Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News via AP

As for the wildlife on the island, both Halderson and Haire noted that animals are typically adept at avoiding fire. In some areas that were scorched when the fire first started, new plants have already begun to sprout.

Still, Halderson said he doesn’t expect the fires to be extinguished anytime soon.

“This will continue until we get significant rain,” Halderson said. “It could take weeks. It could take months.’


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Quote: Wildfire threatens pristine Georgia island rich in history (2022, June 22) retrieved June 22, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-wildfire-threatens-unspoiled-georgia-island.html

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