Wildfire threatens pristine GA island rich in history

By RUSS BYNUM Associated Press
ST. CATHERINES ISLAND, Ga. (AP) – Lightning-caused wildfires have scorched hundreds of acres on this pristine island off the coast of Georgia, where teams are struggling to protect human plantation ruins, remnants of a 16th-century Spanish mission and archeological sites that have yielded artifacts thousands of years old.

St. Catherines Island has long been praised as an ecological and historic coastal treasure. Giant sea turtles nest on its beaches and ring-tailed lemurs, which were brought to the island decades ago, live in its dense forest. Slave quarters made of oyster shell tabby survive on the island, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Savannah, as well as the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

St. Catherines Island, which has been protected for decades under the ownership of a private foundation, has seen about 15% of its land surface burn since a lightning storm caused fires on June 11th. Severe drought left the island dry, causing flames to spread rapidly. Columns of black smoke were visible from the mainland, and raging flames reaching the treetops sometimes burned near the beach.

“We have an untouched history, so we go above and beyond to try to protect it,” Michael Halderson, the island’s manager and sole full-time resident, told reporters Wednesday during a boat tour through the island’s perimeter, where smoldering fire formed dense smoke between blackened trees.

The island fires include more than 30,000 that burned about 4,600 square miles nationwide during one of the worst starts the U.S. has seen until its wildfire season.

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

Assistance arrived last week from the Georgia Forestry Commission, which has mobilized about 15 firefighters with bulldozers for plowing firebreaks as well as planes and a helicopter equipped to pour water on the flames. Another 25 firefighters were expected to arrive Thursday.

Teams did not attack the fires with ditch-digging plows as aggressively as they normally would, given the island’s history as a wealth of historical treasures.

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

Concerned that heavy plows could destroy undiscovered buried treasures, firefighters in some areas have taken a slower approach by using bulldozers to scrape just a few inches (centimeters) off the ground – enough to clear grasses and vegetation so they will not fuel the spread of impending firing. fire.

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

“We want to stop this fire, but we just have to slow down,” Haire said, adding that teams were trying “to keep a light hand on the ground versus the heavy hand of a machine digging up very dirty.”

Haire has estimated that the fires have so far burned up to 1,000 acres (405 acres). Low humidity and unpredictable winds made the fight against the fires more difficult.

Still, teams managed to keep the flames out of the island’s complex, which includes accommodation for visiting researchers and a radio tower essential for communication. 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 fatally wounded in a duel.

Flames crept near the tabby plantation ruins at the southern tip of the island until a helicopter stunned them with water spilled from a giant bucket, Halderson said. He said fire was burning through the Spanish mission grounds, where planted palm trees defined the footprint of the church that stood there centuries ago, but apparently did little damage.

As for the island’s wildlife, both Halderson and Haire noted that animals are usually skilled at avoiding fire. In some areas that were scorched when the fire first started, new plants have already started sprouting.

Yet Halderson said he does not expect the fires to be extinguished any time soon.

“It will continue until we get substantial rain,” Halderson said. “It can take weeks. It could be months. ”

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