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Smoke from Florida, Georgia wildfires likely to impact area through August

Smoke from raging wildfires in southeast Georgia and northeast Florida again settled over parts of Beaufort and other coastal counties, causing low visibility early Thursday and bringing a health warning from state officials.

Fires spewing the smoke included the 267,000-acre blaze at Honey Prairie Complex in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near the Georgia-Florida line. That smoke drifted east-southeastward toward the coast, said Julie Packett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston, and was pushed inland by sea breezes.

The smoke could drift in and out of the Lowcountry until the fires are extinguished, which could be as late as August, according to Georgia emergency management officials.

"They're such large fires that we need a large rain event to help put them out, and it's hard to say when we'll get that," Packett said Thursday. "It's so dry. Some days, like today, are worse than others because of the wind patterns."

The Honey Prairie wildfire is the largest and longest-lasting of the southeast Georgia blazes. It likely was started by a lightning strike April 29. Visibility Thursday morning was as low as a half a mile in parts of Georgia, although it remained between two and three miles in Beaufort County, according to Packett.

Other fires in Georgia and Florida -- such as the Sweat Farm Again fire, which has burned about 20,000 acres in and around Ware County, Ga., and the nearby Race Pond fire -- are contributing to the smoke, Packett said.

"We've received numerous calls about the smoke, today especially," she said. "... The morning hours are typically the worst because the air gets squashed down and hazy. But it often improves at times through the day because the atmosphere becomes better mixed. The sea breeze also can push the smoke inland throughout the day."

South Carolina health officials caution those with respiratory ailments to limit time outdoors if smoke is in the area.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued an air quality advisory Thursday for coastal residents, citing elevated levels of particulate matter -- gases and particles from burning trees and other plants -- drifting into the state from the smoke of the Honey Prairie fire.

On Hilton Head Island, Larry Miller and his family, vacationing from Virginia, weren't letting the haze get them down Thursday afternoon. Miller said his daughter, who is allergic to smoke, had difficulty breathing early in the day while shopping but reported no problems later in the day.

"She had some trouble breathing because she was outside, but she seems to be OK now," Miller said.

Those with airway inflammation -- such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma -- will be more susceptible to irritation, according to Dr. Thomas Beller, a Beaufort allergist.

Despite the smoky haze and smell wafting through, staff at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce say they have received no reports of visitors canceling a planned stay.

"It's more about curiosity," chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark said. "We haven't received any complaints, but a handful of visitors have inquired as to what's causing the smoke conditions."

Meteorologists predicted more of the same for today.

South-southwesterly winds will continue into Saturday but should weaken Sunday, Packett said.

Georgia fire officials also expect increased and erratic fire behavior because of the hot, dry weather, shifting winds and an abundance of dry vegetation. Eric Mosley, a Georgia Forestry Commission spokesman, said the blazes may not be completely controlled without rainfall of several inches during the next several days.

"Honestly, I think we'll potentially be dealing with these fires into August," he said.

Follow staff writer Cassie Foss at twitter.com/LcBlotter.

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