Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Ga. -- They are a brave and seasoned lot, these firefighters who have swarmed to the Georgia swamp to extinguish its raging wildfires.
But even for them, the "dreaded Okefenokee" -- as an old B-movie poster put it -- presents novel sources of fear. The most obvious of them slither quietly through the bogs and bask on the parched peat, all teeth and fearful symmetry.
Minnesota firefighter Kevin Anderson, on nighttime fire watch last week, listened to an alligator bellowing.
"It was growlin' at us," said Anderson, who works for a private contractor. "It didn't like us back there, that's for sure."
Wildfires have been raging along the Georgia-Florida border for more than a month, consuming about 500,000 acres, destroying 18 houses and blanketing Atlanta, about 250 miles away, and other cities with acrid smoke. With Los Angeles' fires extinguished, the blazes in the Southeast have become the top priority for the nation's on-call firefighters: 1,800 of them have descended on the area from as far as Alaska. They plan to be here for many weeks.
The heart of the trouble lies in the great Okefenokee, a 402,000-acre wildlife refuge that is one of the most pristine and inhospitable environments in North America. So far, more than half of it has burned.
The blackwater swamp, home to alligators, bears and poisonous snakes, has suffered from a near-record drought for the last three months. Land that was once waist-deep in water is now parched, leaving a tinderbox of thick, fuel-rich peat that can smolder for days, and sometimes months, after the initial wave of fire rips across it. These lingering hotspots burst into flame again and again.
"In the West, we just can scrape off that layer that retains the heat with a shovel," said Dan Oltrogge, a fire and aviation officer for the National Park Service on loan from the Grand Canyon area. "Here, that organic soil is 3 to 5 feet thick in some places -- so you can't get the heat out of it."
The Okefenokee is a place of eerie beauty -- a landscape of slender pines set among fields of fan-shaped saw palmetto; of druidic cypresses reflected in still water darkened by tannins from dying plants. The skies are home to ring-necked ducks and green-winged teal; the land to orchids and insect-eating pitcher plants.
Visiting firefighters are learning that the swamp is a nearly impossible place to work. The snakes and alligators pose a very real threat. (Although alligator attacks on humans are rare here, U.S. Fish and Wildlife ranger Blaine Eckberg says they seem more aggressive in the current drought conditions, which have them competing for scarce food.)
Bulldozers are useless in much of the muck. The terrain can be difficult to navigate on foot, alternating among open, watery "prairies," dry scrubland and thick forests. Firefighters trudging across solid ground can suddenly find themselves submerged in shoulder-high water.
"What we're seeing, for the most part, is that if you're directly engaging the fire down here, the hazards outweigh the benefits," said Mike Smith, a Boulder, Colo., firefighter who said his team had spotted more than 100 alligators.
Last Wednesday, Smith's team was battling a number of "reburns" that had flared up at a visitors' center near the north end of the refuge. Earlier this month, a reburn claimed 1,200 feet of boardwalk from a nearby nature walk.
Crews have been able to rob fuel from the fires by burning up vegetation in their paths, using airplanes that shoot fire-starting "ping-pong balls" full of glycerin and potassium permanganate. But to a great extent, they have had to be content digging fire buffers along the edge of the swamp -- and waiting for the blaze to run its course.
"Their biggest challenge is trying to get to it, because they can't," said Jim Burkhart, a Fish and Wildlife ranger. "They have to have patience."
The first major fire started April 16 when a tree fell into some power lines. The days since have been tense for the communities that surround Okefenokee, and they are preparing for more.
Some locals remember the last time a fire burned so much swampland. It began in July 1954 and continued through the fall of the next year.
Because rain supplies 90% of the Okefenokee's groundwater, it is rain that would best serve to cool the hot soil. But with the Atlantic Ocean only an hour away, and the Gulf of Mexico a little farther, people here are careful what they wish for.
"We're going to need some kind of tropical storm or hurricane -- God forbid -- to get the water table back up," said Phillip Manuel, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Manuel was speaking at a town hall meeting last week in Folkston, a city of about 2,100 that bills itself as the "Gateway to the Okefenokee."