Long County held its “after the smoke clears” town hall meeting Wednesday night at Smiley Elementary School.
Organized by the Georgia Forestry Commission, the meeting addressed several topics, including the damage from the March fires and options for salvaging burned timber.
One issue that came up during the question-and-answer portion of the program was whether the Georgia Forestry Commission would reinstate a full-time chief ranger in Long County.
Due to budget cuts in 2010, the position was eliminated and the county now is a part of the Ogeechee District 6.
Georgia Forestry Commission Director Robert Farris told the audience that because of budget cuts in the state, the commission had to move away from individual operating counties and instead take a regional approach.
He said that when these cuts were made, 10 percent of their offices were closed, their 12 districts were reduced to six, and several counties in the state, including Long County, lost their chief ranger.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see much of an opportunity for changes with that,” Farris said.
Long County Commissioner Wallace Shaw asked Farris why the cuts were not made in the northern part of Georgia, where the percentage of forestland is not as large.
“Seventy-six percent of our county is forest, and we need our own ranger,” Shaw said.
Long County resident Tommy Houston said he also believes the county needs its own full-time ranger.
“I understand we are in hard times, and your group is one of the best-run departments in the state, but I lost 300 acres in 37 minutes, and I have to agree with my commissioner,” he said.
Farris said he would be happy to sit down with any group from Long County to discuss the matter.
Many residents attended the meeting to find out whether there is any funding available to help those who lost land during the recent fires.
Assistant State Conservationist David Ferrell said there is no funding available for the current year, but he said there might be some funds available next year.
“Most of the money that is available comes through the farm bill,” he said. “But even if we had money right now, there are a lot of steps to take before we can get that money from the federal government into the hands of a private citizen.”
To be eligible for funding, Ferrell said a person must have lost more than 10 acres of land and must be qualified.
He also said that if the land is linked to a partnership or a corporation, each person in the group also has to be qualified.
Even though no funding currently is available, Ferrell said landowners can begin the steps, based on the work they do now, to try for funds for next year.
However, he also said that completing the application process does not guarantee a person will receive money.
Those in attendance also received details on the Elim Church fire that ravaged Long County on March 28 and destroyed 4,035 acres.
Farris said 89 fires were active in the state that day, destroying 45,000 acres of land.
He added that five fires — including the one in Long County — accounted for 88 percent of the destroyed land.
He said initial estimates indicate the burned timber was valued at $33.6 million. Of that, he said $26 million, or 79 percent, was ruined and beyond being salvaged.