FORT STEWART, Ga. - Fort Stewart First responders were quickly on hand March 24 to assist the Ludowici/Long County Fire Department in what is now referred to as the Elim Church Road Fire.

The Fort Stewart crews responded initially with over 20 forestry personnel, which included engineering equipment operators, forestry technicians and supervisors to assist with the attack by operating tractor/plow units, pumper trucks, fuel trucks and a service truck.

They assisted in plowing firebreaks and spraying homes and yards with water.

The fire ravaged 4,035 acres and burned 10 structures, three of which were occupied homes.

"Upon hearing of the fire and seeing the smoke, myself and my Fire Management Supervisor made contact with Georgia Forestry Commission wildland fire staff and, knowing the weather and drought conditions for the day, offered our assistance," said Jeff Mangun, Directorate of Public Works chief of the Forestry Branch for Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield.

"They responded with 'Send anything you can spare!', " continued Mangun.

Since the fire is all but extinguished and no dwellings are in danger, the command center at the Long County Recreation Department from which firefighters and first responders had been operating has been closed.

The fire began in a wooded area near Elim Church Road and quickly sread to the thickly forested lad off Highway 84, which public safety officials temporarily closed a few times due to zero visibility.

The fire jumped Highway 84 on the same evening and ignited land on the other side of the road.
The cause of the blaze is still unknown, but the GFC will conduct a full investigation.

"However, the Georgia Forestry Commission's "hot shot" team still is putting out hot spots and any areas they see smoldering," Ballance said.

Firefighters also created 40-50-foot firebreaks to contain possible flare-ups.

Firefighters have found assistance in the form of rain showers that doused the scorched land and lingering flames.

"The rain has been a big help in extinguishing the fire," said Darrell Ballance, Ludowici/Long County Fire Department Chief and Emergency Management Agency Director.

Outages caused by burned power lines were reported throughout the area, he said, but service has been restored, and all evacuees have been allowed to return to their homes. The only reported injury was to a firefighter who broke his foot. Thirty fire departments responded to the fire and, at times, up to 270 firefighters were on hand.

Ballance said winds made the blaze especially difficult to control.

"It was a tough fire to fight due to the high winds, which, at times, caused the fire to reach treetops and jump highways," he said.

Two helicopters were brought in Friday to drop water on the flames, according to L/LCFD Assistant Chief Richard Truman.

Stewart-Hunter has also assisted in other national fire disturbances. In recent years, they deployed to aid in 2007 to help suppress fires at the Okefenokee Complex and in 1998 with the Florida Palm Coast fires.

"We have sent individuals to be part of hand line crews on wildfires, and overhead teams, Space Shuttle disaster recovery efforts, hurricane recovery, etc. several times between those years to places such as Idaho, Alaska, North Carolina, Florida, Oregon, Virginia, Mississippi and Texas," said Mangun.

Ballance said the fire was the worst he'd seen since 2007 when 2,000 acres in Long County burned. He also emphasized the importance of taking safety precautions in times of crisis.

Residents are reminded residents to leave the area or stay indoors when a fire breaks out or burns into the evening hours because smoke and darkness make it hard for fire engine drivers to see bystanders lining the sides of the roads and lingering on the outskirts of the fire.

Mangun agrees with Balance in encouraging residents to think twice before lighting controlled burns.

"Before you do any burning, even a little pile, call Georgia forestry at 877-652-2876," Ballance said.

Coastal Courier correspondent Lewis Levine contributed to this report.