We didn’t kill the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning — or at least since June 28, when a lightning strike set much of the 900-acre peat lands ablaze, according to Liberty County and Midway Georgia Forestry Commission Chief Ranger David Duke.
This weekend, winds whipped the flames back to life, and for a short time they danced dangerously close to nearby homes in Church Field Estates and Revolutions Nightclub on Highway 196 West, he said.
Crews from the Georgia Forestry Commission and Hinesville Fire Department have been on hand since Sunday to monitor and contain the fire, which charred some wooden privacy fences on Summer Drive on Sunday, according to HFD Capt. Christopher Moss.
Summer Drive resident Gabrielle Mann said the fire picked up quickly Sunday.
“I was outside during the afternoon and it was slightly smoky like it has been,” she said. “Then about 40 minutes later my neighbor knocked on my door and told me I ought to come take a look at it.”
When she looked outside, the fire burned with intensity, and ashes 2-3 inches in diameter fell from the skies, she said.
“I’ve been making sure my fire alarms are working,” Mann added. The fire became so intense Sunday that she could smell the smoke indoors, so she packed a bag and left for about four hours.
“The fire was right up next to my fence, and I just didn’t want to risk it,” Mann said.
The current flare-up has not forced residents to evacuate yet, Moss said. On July 25, residents of Happy Acres Mobile Home Park were asked to leave their homes for about three hours while HFD teams pushed the fire away from the park.
“When it crosses the fire breaks and it’s endangering structures, that’s when we try and get in,” Moss said.
Armed with hoses powered by trucks and fire hydrants, his crews ran up and down the street putting the flames to rest Sunday night.
On Monday, Moss anticipated he would station a crew at the fire overnight.
“People say, ‘Well, why don’t you put the fire out?’” Moss added. “We can’t; it’s underground.”
Though the fire has been mostly inactive for the past three weeks, the peat has continued smoldering underground, Duke said. In all, about 800 acres of the woods have burned.
“When the fire comes through the first time, it doesn’t burn everything completely,” Duke said. Leaves, vines and stems dried from the first fire become reignited by the heat contained within the peat in what is known as a reburn.
Any wind or excessive heat without moisture can whip the flames back to life, and an inundation of rain is likely the only thing that will put the fire out entirely, Duke said.
“The sad thing is the heat can stay in there for months,” he added.
Duke and his Georgia Division of Forestry team are monitoring the area’s interior from crawler tractors, and they have cleared a break line around the fire’s perimeter. For the most part, they allow fires within the perimeter to burn.
“There’s not a lot we can do in there,” he said. Shifting winds also cause the flames to flare up and spread throughout the area, moving with unpredictable trajectory.
On Monday afternoon, flames erupted and dissipated within minutes, and Hinesville Police officers directed drivers to a single lane on the east-bound side of Highway 196 to accommodate fire trucks pumping water to douse the flames. More of the area near the highway burned overnight Monday.
On Tuesday, Duke said the fire’s activity was “more or less” the same as it had been the day before.
HFD officials also are keeping watch on the fire’s proximity on its western border to Taylors Creek Elementary, Moss said. The school would be evacuated in the “worst-case scenario” of the fire spreading toward it, he added.
“We’re doing all we can,” Moss said. “Rain is what we need — a lot of rain.”