On June 22, St. Catherines Island Foundation Director Michael Halderson and Byron Haire, Area 8 Fire Management Officer for the Georgia Forestry Commission gave an update on the multiple fires on St. Catherines Island in Liberty County that started by cloud to ground lightning strikes on June 10.
Halderson said roughly 1,000 acres were in several various stages of burning. He explained 400 acres of the island is developed and the remaining 5,000 is in a wild and natural state. He said the GFC crews were working hard to protect the various archeological sites and the main compound where they house all their equipment. They are also working to protect the historic Button Gwinnet Home.
St. Catherines Island has several Native American shell mounds, Europeans sites and a site of the Spanish Mission called Mission Santa Catalina de Guale, the northernmost outpost in Spanish Florida between 1587 and 1680, and one of the most important Spanish missions in what is now the southeastern United States until 1684.
The island also has a lot of wildlife to include Madagascar Ring-tailed Lemurs.
“All of the animals are safe,” Halderson said. “They still show up for breakfast every morning and they are smart enough to not go into the smoke and fire.”
He said if the animals were threatened, they would trap them and place them in holding pens until the threat was gone. St. Catherines once house several exotic species of animals, but many were placed in other sanctuaries a few years ago. The island does have wild hogs, deer, serves as a sea-turtle nesting site and the Lemurs that still remain on the island.
“Nature tends to survive,” he said. “Our forest will rebound and look really good.”
Halderson said the challenge was trying to figure out where to let the fire burn and where to battle the blaze even if it passed over buried sites. He said the fire that did threaten the compound and animals was fought vigorously. He said the fires were not raging fires save for one that looked massive because it was fueled by the cabbage palms. Halderson said some of the wild deer were still grazing around the island and appeared well.
He said their biggest concern is that the fires will burn down into the peat and get into the root systems and keep slowly burning.
“And until we get significant rain that will continue,” he said. “It could be weeks. It could be months, but until we get significant rain that will continue. So, we will have to keep monitoring these areas.”
He called all the dead and dry timber on the island the perfect recipe for more fires unless the area gets the rainfall it needs. But he noted most of the fires are somewhat contained now.
He said they are hitting the hot-spots by air and using ground units to control the burn. He said they had roughly 15 students from University of the South from Tennessee when the fires first started. When they saw the fires were intensifying, they took the students off the island so they could strictly focus on putting the fire out.
Haire said they were using single-engine air tankers to attack a few fires that once again sprung up overnight. Liberty County Fire Services Chief Brian Darby was part of the air suppression crew checking the fire from above. Haire reported the fire they put out around the compound has remained extinguished. He reiterated that the extreme drought conditions along the coast helped the fire spread quickly. He added the cabbage palms on the island also spread the fire as they release embers. Haire said the island’s breeze effect from the marsh and ocean waters made the fires harder to put out but easier to spread. He also noted that fighting a fire on an island is especially difficult since the equipment has to brought out to the island by barge.
Haire said there were 15 GFC workers containing the fires on the island and they are trying to get more equipment brought out to get the fires under control. Liberty County EMS was requested to be on stand-by should one of his personnel need medical assistance.