St. Catherine’s Island wildfires could take weeks to fully extinguish without significant rain

Smoke rises from the burned landscape at the north end of St. Catherine's Island.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Combined ShapeCaption
Smoke rises from the burned landscape at the north end of St. Catherine's Island.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

On June 11, a brilliant lighting storm danced around the sky in the distance south of Savannah. But over St. Catherine’s Island, Mother Nature’s electric light display was more than a show.

With very little rain and more than 100 strikes over the island, fire sparked tinder-dry fallen trees and underbrush. Michael Halderson, director of operations and one of only the handful of full-time residents of the privately owned island, battled the blaze along with a small staff of eight. Then, a second blaze erupted, and resources had to be redeployed to protect the historic and archaeological treasures and buildings.

"When we began fighting the first fire, we didn't know we had a second one, let alone a third and fourth," Halderson said of the growing emergency. He and his team did all that they could until help arrived from the Georgia Forestry Commission on June 16.

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By Monday flames shot from trees on the north end of the island as one of the fires made its way toward the beach.

According to Halderson, “The north end was palms and dead wood from a previous fire, mostly pines that was just kindling. So, you put that on a scale of a couple of feet across and 50 feet in the air, it puts on a great show when it catches up.”

With the aid from a pair of 500-gallon air tankers making water drops from overhead and dozers carefully working to create fire breaks on the ground, Byron Haire, GFC’s Area 8 fire management officer, and his crew have begun to gain some control over the fires. Approximately, 50% of the fires are contained at this point.

“Putting water on these fires will help to cool them but dropping water will not extinguish," explained Haire. "They will stay in the ground and come back out at a later time and start to spread again.”

Haire estimates that around 800 to 1,000 acres have burned on the nearly 5,000-acre island, but explains because of the history and terrain the process for fighting the fire is slow.

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“We do recognize that in a different situation we may would be speedier. We’d drop plows and we’d go,” Haire said, "But thinking of the footprints left here before, the footprint we want to leave, we want to get this fire stopped but we just have to slow down.”

Halderson thinks it could be a while before the fires are completely out. “These fires will get down in the peat, and it will burn the roots slowly like a cigar until we get significant rain. It could be weeks. It could be months.”

Richard Burkhart is a visual journalist for Savannah Morning News. Contact him at

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: St. Catherine's Island wildfires could takes weeks to fully extinguish without significant rain


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