Wildfires Strike Georgia, Florida As fires burn California's Catalina island, the southeastern United States is suffering its own fire woes. Georgia is fighting the largest fire on record in that state, and Florida is also beset by fires.
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Wildfires Strike Georgia, Florida

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Wildfires Strike Georgia, Florida

Wildfires Strike Georgia, Florida

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From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

Fires are burning out of control across the country.

BRAND: After a winter of little rain, fire season has arrived. Coming up, we'll talk with an expert about whether all these fires in May are unusual.

COHEN: Here in California, off the coast of Los Angeles, a fire is burning on Catalina Island. Thousands of people were evacuated. They had to board ferries last night for the mainland. Here's Roberto Tejada(ph) and his family after they reached the shore.

Mr. ROBERTO TEJADA (Resident, Catalina Island): It looked like the whole town was on fire, the whole island pretty much. We lost quite a few structures already; pretty hectic situation over there right now.

BRAND: More than 4,000 acres have burned on the island. This is the second fire in this area this week. The first was in L.A.'s Griffith Park, where more than 800 acres burned. It was mostly put out mostly thanks to nighttime water drops by helicopters. Los Angeles County fire inspector Ron Harelson says last night on Catalina, the water drops had to be suspended until this morning.

Mr. RON HARELSON (Fire Inspector, Los Angeles County): The smoke is a hazard. Also sometimes the marine layer of fog comes into play and all the other hazards involved with that create a different situation than we saw at Griffith Park. We're talking about having access to the city lights, and being -visibility being a lot better than we had out there on that island.

COHEN: And in Georgia and Florida, firefighters have been embattling record-breaking blazes. One fire has been raging for several weeks now in Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. On Saturday, a bolt of lightning started a second Okefenokee fire, which has now grown into the largest fire on record in that state.

Joining us now is Mark Ruggiero. He's the incident commander of the fires in both Georgia and Florida. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARK RUGGIERO (Incident Commander): Hi.

COHEN: Where are you right now?

Mr. RUGGIERO: I'm standing near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, adjacent to the big turnaround fire on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee swamp, where we have fire activity today and we're trying to build fire lines to keep the fire from going out of the refuge.

COHEN: Are you able to see the fire now? Can you describe what it looks like?

Mr. RUGGIERO: Well, currently, our conditions on the big turnaround fire portion right now have been moderated a little bit with some higher humidities last night. But that's not going to last very long today. We expect the winds to pick up and the humidity to drop. We have a lot of fire in some difficult terrain.

We don't have mountains here, but we have a lot of vegetation, the swamp, which makes it difficult. We can't fight fire in the swamp. And of course we have a lot of homes and structures to protect that are intermixed in a lot of long leaf pine trees. So it's very difficult to get in to check homes and be able to drive and do that type of things.

COHEN: Can you describe what a fire actually looks like when it's burning in a swamp?

Mr. RUGGIERO: Well, it puts out a lot of smoke. It's often fires in the swamps like here or maybe like Everglades National Park. Afire will burn across the dry vegetation, even on top of the water and skip to pieces of higher ground in the swamp and keep jumping. In this case, where the prolonged drought we've been having here, the Okefenokee Swamp is not as high as it should be.

And fire is a natural component of the ecosystem here. And fire is good for the Okefenokee Swamp, but not under these conditions. And because it's so dry, the fire is just rapidly building, and we have large 30,000-foot columns coming off fires in the swamp. In fact, the day (unintelligible) a few days ago, the smoke column extended far out into the Gulf of Mexico.

COHEN: Do you have any sense of time? This has been going on for weeks now. Are we talking about weeks more?

Mr. RUGGIERO: We are talking about weeks more. We need a tropical depression, and that's a double-edged sword. We don't need a hurricane. We need a tropical depression, which is part of what happens in this part of Georgia and Florida. They get these heavy rains and keep the swamps full, and we really did not have that last summer because the hurricane season was still minimal last year. We did not even get the normal tropical depressions.

We've gone all winter with very little rain, and now here we are in a serious situation, so we need these tropical storms and there's still really nothing 30 days out in the projection. We may get a few thunderstorms in a day and get a little bit of rain here or there, but it really doesn't make that much difference.

COHEN: Mark Ruggiero. He's the incident commander of the fires raging in Georgia and Florida. Thank you so much.

Mr. RUGGIERO: Thank you.

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