Clayton, N.C. — An estimated 300 brush fires burned more than 9,000 acres across North Carolina Sunday and part of Monday. Damage in WRAL’s viewing area was contained mostly to the northern counties.
More than 5,000 Progress Energy customers lost power in the area, and Duke Energy reported more than 19,000 outages across the state.
At least 100 people were forced to evacuate their homes Sunday as brush fires stormed across the state. About 1,000 acres burned in Halifax County, but property damage was minimal, according to Robert Smith with the North Carolina Forest Service.
A production crew for the Carolina Hurricanes experienced what it's like on the front lines of a fire. They came across a fire in Franklinton on their way back from New Jersey Sunday.
They put down their cameras, picked up fire hoses and helped volunteer firefighters fight the flames.
“The wind was so bad out there. The fire kept getting re-stoked,” said Pete Soto with Canes Vision. “They would flare back up. One flared up by my foot. It was intense. Then you start realizing, ‘What am I in the middle of here?’ You don’t realize it, but at the same time, you’re just glad to help out.”
Soto's face was still covered with soot when he talked with WRAL later. He says it took the crew about 20 minutes to douse the flames. Their quick action helped save a family's house.
Sixteen fires burned in Halifax County overnight, but officials were able to reduce that number to eight fires by Monday morning. Most of the fires in Franklin County were also out Monday, but crews were still watching for hot spots.
Winds gusting to 60 mph blew trees onto power lines. Wake Electric reported some 1,115 power outages, mostly in Franklinton, Oxford, Kittrell and Royal.
Firefighters from seven departments tackled a large woods fire around the 3700 block of Polenta Road, near Matthews Road in Clayton.
About 60 firefighters worked to put out the estimated 50 acres that were on fire. Flames destroyed two barns and threatened 20 homes.
Worshipers evacuated Willow Spring Free Will Baptist Church at about 12:45 p.m. as the fire moved closer to the structure.
“I looked down and saw all that smoke and said, 'Lord, take care of us,’” church member Rosa Wright said. "Then the fireman came in the church and told the pastor to get everybody out."
The church burned to the ground in the late 1940s.
"I asked the Lord, 'Lord, please don't let it happen again,’” church member Bettie Saunders Davis said.
The fire never reached the church, but WRAL talked with someone who lost a barn and storage shed to the flames.
It was the "most fire trucks I (had) ever seen come through this yard,” Willie Clark said.
Clark lost the barn his horse, Tootsie, called home.
"I'm gonna have to keep her tied up all night long,” he said.
A plow and helicopters from the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources also battled the brush fires.
About 20 Johnston County homes were endangered, but none was damaged.
Cleveland Fire Chief Chris Ellington said no injuries were reported, but that firefighters had their vital signs checked by emergency medical personnel, who made sure they also re-hydrated.
The state Highway Patrol reported a brush fire reduced visibility to zero on Interstate 85 between exits 206 and 208 at the Vance-Granville county line. A patrol dispatcher said traffic was rerouted onto U.S. 158 into Granville County.
In Harnett County, multiple brush fires burned in Cameron. Fire destroyed a home at 1156 Heritage Way, but there were no injuries. The Red Cross helped the displaced family find shelter.
In Kittrell, north of Louisburg, at the intersection of West Dyking and Sims Bridge roads, firefighters battled a brush fire. They contained the blaze by 10:30 p.m. Dozens of residents had been evacuated earlier from their homes, as two shelters were set up.
Eighteen people remained at Cedar Creek Middle School Sunday night. All evacuees at the Senior Center in Louisburg had returned home.
Brush fires were also reported on Edwards and Riddle roads in Lee County and U.S. Highway 1 north of Franklinton, before the Vance County line. Fire destroyed two homes, but one of them was vacant.
In Halifax County, at least 16 brush fires forced residents to evacuate 28 homes along Macon Road in Hollister, officials said. The state Department of Transportation closed several roads due to heavy smoke and reduced visibility. Evacuees were sent to Hollister Elementary School. As of 11:20 p.m., all fires in the county were contained. No homes were damaged by fire.
Rocky Mount firefighters battled a brush fire Sunday afternoon near Meadowbrook Road. At about 3 p.m., the Highway Patrol closed U.S. Highway 64 Bypass in both directions between Raleigh Street and Kingsboro Road due to smoke causing poor visibility for motorists. Traffic was detoured onto U.S. 64 Alternate for two hours.
All of the state was under a "red flag" warning Sunday, prohibiting outdoor burning. The warning stemmed from the passage of a strong cold front that whipped up the strong winds.
Shardul Ravel with the North Carolina Forestry Service said 112 fires, spanning some 1,000 acres, were contained across the state. Roughly 80 fires, spanning 2,000 acres, remained uncontained at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
The wind also caused problems for planes trying to land at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Winds caused planes to rock back and forth Sunday as they approached the runway. In some cases, pilots would scrap the landing and try again, officials said. At least two flights were canceled, and a third flight was diverted to a different city.
The Forest Service said every county in the state reported at least one brush fire Sunday.
The Division of Forest Resources on Friday had warned people to avoid debris burning over the weekend. Careless burning of debris accounts for more than 40 percent of the wildfires in North Carolina, more than any other cause, state officials said.