Stories from my little corner of the world, the South. Some are from the present, some from the past...but all are from my heart.

They reflect my thoughts and views, my musing about the world, and each carries with it a bit of my heart
and soul.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A New Fire Season Begins...

Where There’s Smoke, There’s a New Fire Season

Photo by Jamie Steedley

It's April, and as it has been for the last several years, it's also the beginning of a new fire season in South Georgia and north Florida.

This year's first fire is found in Pinhook Swamp. Where and what, you're probably asking, is Pinhook Swamp? Located south of Council, it’s a vast area bounded on the east by Florida highway 2 and on the western side by US Highway 441.  It’s a swampy land bridge that connects the Okefenokee Swamp and Osceola National Forest, a veritable backwoods highway for the Florida panther, black bears and other species. In Janisse Ray’s book in 2005, Pinhook, Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land, she aptly describes it this way: "It is 170,000 acres of dreary dismal. A giant piece of ground too deep for a human to wade in, too shallow for a boat to draw...Some of the last real wilderness in the South."

 This is where the County Line Fire, as the Florida Forestry Service is now calling it, began last week. It was only a little more than 300 acres in the first day or so. Unfortunately, it has grown exponentially to more than eleven thousand acres as of Easter Sunday.

 I know this because my brother has been out there around the fire since it began. He's there because it's in his blood. He's been following forest fires ever since he can remember because he was our daddy's shadow, and wherever there was forest fire, you found J. T. Steedley.

As much as we have all missed Daddy since his death in January, I know Jamie misses him now more than ever. This first fire of the season is difficult for him, as it would have to be, for there are too many memories of hours spent together during past wild fires, long days and nights riding boundary lines and discussing strategies.
Because of the size and location of it now, the fire is large enough to garner the attention of the Feds. They're calling in reinforcements and will soon take control. But for all their manpower and equipment, those federal guys will never have the know-how and experience the locals have when it comes to battling these blazes in our area.

The Georgia and Florida Forestry Service, the local timber companies, and private landowners have so much experience on their side when it comes to fires down here. A fire on the edge of the Okefenokee or Pinhook Swamp is far different than fires in the mountains of Colorado and California.

Besides Jamie missing Daddy during this fire, there are others that miss him as well because they counted on his experience during these wildfires. Although Daddy had been retired for several years, as soon as there was a wildfire, he was present for all the daily incident reports and was there to offer advice or to give his opinion on the best way to approach battling a blaze. 

 Below are photos of Daddy from the Bugaboo fire in 2007:

He lived and breathed each forest fire from the first lightening strike to the end where rain flushes out the last embers. As a matter of fact, he was quoted by a Florida Times Union writer last year when asked what he thought about the Honey Prairie fire. He said in his no-nonsense way: "Lightning starts it, rain puts it out and the rest of us just mess around with it in the middle."

Daddy’s fifty-two years as a forester for the Langdale Company garnered him a lot of respect among his peers. In addition to this was the fact that he personally put in many of the roads on the property surrounding the Okefenokee Swamp and the roads and bridges in Pinhook Swamp made him a walking, talking GPS system of knowledge for local firefighters. He grew up and lived all his life in the very area where the fires often were, so that he literally knew the area like the back of his hand.

I knew, respected, and admired his knowledge. Back in 2007 I rode with him for a total of seven hours on two days, and listened as he talked about not only the Bugaboo Fire, but also the last big fires in 1954-55 in the Okefenokee Swamp.  He talked a lot to me about what it was like fighting those fires that burned from July 1954 to June 1955.

That kind of experience, actually driving a tractor in the midst of a raging wildfire, is something no amount of education or desk work or computer modeling can give a person. Being in the midst of the raging beast as it roars and bellows around you and making split second decisions are not something that can be taught in a book. The respect by the local fire fighters for Daddy's input on the fires in the past was based on their knowledge that he had been there and done what they were now doing.

As a little girl, I can remember worrying about Daddy when there was a wildfire. He would leave before daylight, be out in the woods all day long, and finally come in well after dark. He looked exhausted, his clothes and hard-hat smoky and dirty, soot streaking his face, and he’d sit down on the porch to take off his boots. After taking a bath, he’d get bite to eat. He might lie down and sleep for a few hours, then be back up and out the door to go back battle the beast.

I know that’s what lies ahead for all of the firefighters in the coming days and I’ll be keeping them in my thoughts and prayers. I applaud their dedication and hard work. And even though Daddy is not there with them physically, I’ve no doubt he’s there in spirit.

Rose S. Williams


  1. Rose, I have no doubt, either, that your Daddy is there, standing side by side with the brave firefighters. I truly hope the Okefenokee gets spared this time.

  2. Thanks Michelle, I knew you'd understand what I meant :) And, yes, so do I about the Swamp,but if the wind keeps up and we don't get rain down here it will be heading that way. Thank you for reading.

  3. No is the time when the people who knew your father will realize how much they miss him, and why. You don't know how much support you're leaning on until it gets pulled out. I know enough about fire to know I don't know anything at all about fire, but there were likely a lot of people who thought they knew fire, but they only knew what they were told by those who did know.

    We, as a people of South Georgia, are going to miss that man.

    1. Awww Mike, thank you so much, and yes, I do believe what you've said is very, very true. They are only now realizing how much he is missed.