The wildfire season that normally peaks and starts subsiding in May is being dragged into summer with little relief in sight. Officials say 8,500 wildfires have burned more than 93,000 acres, or about 145 square miles, statewide since July 2010 - a total that doesn't include the Okefenokee because the swamp is federal land. While not a record season, that's well above average for Georgia.
And this season's fire toll is still growing. Last week, officials reported 47 new fires in the southeastern part of the state. Most were caused by lightning from dry thunderstorms and burned just a few acres. But one bolt kindled a new fire on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee that quickly burned more than 6,000 acres - or 9 square miles - inside the swamp north of a much larger blaze that started April 30.
Officials said six of the new fires were fanned to life from the smoldering remains of old blazes that never received enough rain to be extinguished for good.
"It's a dire situation when fire season extends into the summer months because it's tough on the firefighters and their equipment and on the forest," said Alan Dozier, fire chief for the Georgia Forestry Commission. "We're stretching our folks about as hard as we can."
The agency's 400 firefighters have been told to cancel vacations, Dozier said. Some of them have been battling wildfires since late March. Bulldozers and tractor plows used to clear fire breaks are showing signs of wear-and-tear from almost constant use, he said, with dirt and debris in their moving parts and little time for maintenance.
To end the fire season and extinguish the blazes that continue to burn in the swamp, Georgia needs days of soaking rain.
About three-fourths of the state, basically everything south of Atlanta, is in drought _ classified as extreme for most areas south of Macon and Columbus. Parts of southeast Georgia, including Savannah, are 20 inches below normal rainfall totals for the past year.
David Stooksbury, Georgia's state climatologist, said he doesn't see much chance of significant rain until at least mid-August, when the season for tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean starts to peak. Sporadic summer thunderstorms just don't pack enough moisture to snap the severe drought conditions.
"We're in that time of the year that, unless we have tropical weather, we just don't have much rainy weather," Stooksbury said.
While none of the 2011 wildfires has caused much damage to homes or communities, they have destroyed more than $20 million worth of timber held by private landowners, from large corporations to small nest-egg investors.
More than 166,000 acres have burned since April 30 in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge at the Georgia-Florida state line _ an area not included in Georgia's official 2011 wildfire acreage because it's federally owned land.
Nearly 500 firefighters in the Okefenokee have largely succeeded in keeping the vast fire confined within the southern half of the 670-square-mile swamp refuge. Still, a threat emerged last week when a lightning strike sparked the new blaze in the swamp's unburned northern half.
The northern swamp fire means crews will have to work harder to keep the blaze from threatening to jump the swamp's edge and menace nearby communities such as Folkston and Waycross.
"It's a whole new chapter," said Art Webster, the Okefenokee refuge's supervisory ranger.