A wildfire threatens a preserved island of Georgia rich in history

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ST. CATHERINES ISLAND, Ga. – Wildfires sparked by lightning have scorched hundreds of acres on this unspoilt island off the Georgia coast, where crews are battling to protect the ruins of plantations, remnants of a mission 16th century Spanish and archaeological sites that have produced human artifacts thousands of years ago.

St. Catherine Island has long been considered an ecological and historic coastal treasure. Giant sea turtles nest on its beaches and ring-tailed lemurs, brought to the island decades ago, live in its dense forest. Slave quarters made from oyster shell tabbies survive on the island, about 40 miles south of Savannah, as does the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Protected for decades under the ownership of a private foundation, Sainte-Catherine Island has seen about 15% of its area burned since a thunderstorm sparked fires on June 11. A severe drought left the island dry, allowing flames to spread quickly. Columns of black smoke were visible from the mainland and raging flames reaching treetops burned near the beach at times.

“We have an intact history, so we go above and beyond to try to protect that,” Michael Halderson, island manager and only full-time resident, told reporters on Wednesday during a boat trip around the perimeter. of the island, where a smoldering fire has formed thick smoke among blackened trees.

The island fires are among more than 30,000 that have scorched about 4,600 square miles nationwide in one of the the worst starts the United States has seen its wildfire season.

Halderson and his small team of seven worked nonstop for days trying 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 through the firebreaks as well as planes and a helicopter equipped to dump water on the flames. Another 25 firefighters were due to arrive on Thursday.

Crews did not attack the fires with trench-digging plows 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 Spanish Catholic missionaries 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 produced over a million artifacts.

Fearing that heavy plows would destroy undiscovered buried treasure, firefighters in some areas have taken a slower approach, using bulldozers to scrape a few inches (centimeters) from the ground – enough to clear grasses and vegetation so that they do not feed the propagation of the approach. Fire.

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

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

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

Still, crews managed to push the flames away from the island compound which includes accommodation for visiting researchers and a vital radio tower for communications. The former home of Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who purchased the island in 1766 and lived there until his death in 1777 after being fatally wounded in a duel, is also protected in this area.

The flames crept near the ruins of the tabby plantation on the southern end of the island until a helicopter smothered them with water dumped from a giant bucket, Halderson said. He said the fire had burned at the site of the Spanish mission, where planted palm trees made the imprint of the church that stood there centuries ago but appeared to do little damage.

Regarding the island’s fauna, Halderson and Haire noted that the animals are generally adept at avoiding fire. In some areas burned at the start of the fire, new plants have already started to sprout.

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

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

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