Lumberton, N.C. — Wildfires continue to plague Robeson County, but authorities have become more concerned with the thick smoke that has enveloped parts of the county than they are with the flames.
More than 150 wildfires scorched almost 3,000 acres in the county in August, and authorities spent about $900,000 battling them.
At least three wildfires are burning now. One in Jackson Swamp near the Bladen County line has consumed more than 600 acres. A second near Allenton in the eastern part of the county has burned 400 acres, and one near Maxton at the western edge of the county has burned about 150 acres.
The Jackson Swamp fire smolders underground, producing billows of choking smoke.
"All that smoke is coming from the peat soil burning, and it will continue to burn like a cigarette or a fuse until it's consumed," said Michael Huffman, of the state Division of Forest Resources.
More than 70 state forestry workers have been fighting around the clock, pumping in water from nearby culverts to contain the wildfire, Huffman said.
Local health officials have instructed residents to stay inside or find a different place to live until the fires are out because of the risks posed by smoke inhalation.
"It gets real bad," resident Eric Davis said. "We have an air purifier, which helps on the inside, (but) I've had enough of it."
Davis said he's afraid to leave, however, because the wildfires have already come within 150 feet of his home.
The smoke also poses driving hazards, and N.C. Highway 41 had to be closed Monday morning because of low visibility. Five cars were involved in a wreck on the highway.
Many of the fires have been sparked by outdoor burning, Huffman said. Although a statewide burning ban has been in effect for weeks because of the ongoing drought, the state can't enforce the ban if people are burning leaves or other materials within 100 feet of their homes.
"We've got fires all over this area, and we're still getting new starts every day from people burning," he said. "They're putting our lives at risk and fellow citizens at risk."