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Eastern N.C. under highest air-quality warning

A Code Purple air alert went up as 530 workers used about 100 air and ground machines to fight a stubborn wildfire that started June 1. The alert included Edenton, Elizabeth City, Greenville, Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Tarboro, Washington and Wilson.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Division of Air Quality issued a Code Purple alert – the most extreme warning possible – for part of northeast North Carolina because of lingering smoke from a wildfire that has been burning for almost two weeks.

The Code Purple alert, which signals very unhealthy air, was issued for Friday and Saturday for areas east of Interstate 95 and north of U.S. Highway 70 and included the cities of Edenton, Elizabeth City, Greenville, Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Tarboro, Washington and Wilson.

Rocky Mount Fire Chief Keith Harris said his department has seen a spike in the number of emergency runs related to respiratory ailments – since the smoke settled over the city.

“Typically over a three day period of time, we would run about two or three respiratory distress calls. But we noticed over the last three days, we have run 14 respiratory distress calls,” Harris said.

People in the affected areas were urged to avoid outdoor activity to minimize their exposure to fine particles of soot in the air.

As the warning went out, state forestry officials said the fire has burned nearly 40,000 acres and had cost $2.3 million to fight as of Friday.

They said the 530 people who were fighting the fire with 80 vehicles, eight airplanes and 10 helicopters were hoping to hold the western side of the fire at Evans Road – ironically the road from which it took the name by which officials call it. It first burned to the east, then started back west as winds changed during this week.

“These are some of the highest levels of particle pollution we have ever recorded,” Keith Overcash, director of the division, said in a statement.

“People residing in areas downwind from the fire should take immediate precautions by staying indoors and avoiding physical exertion, particularly if they are among these sensitive groups.”

The state Department of Transportation warned weekend travelers that dense smoke could limit visibility along some routes in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties.

Triangle air quality compromised

Lingering smoke in the air left some Triangle residents straining to breathe under a Code Red air quality warning Friday. Department of Transportation signs along Interstate 40 alerted people to the Code Red.

Under a Code Red alert, people are urged to avoid outdoor activities. The warning especially applies to children, the elderly and anyone with a respiratory problem, officials said. Conditions improved during the day, however, as southwest winds cleared the air.

The state Division of Public Health lists the symptoms of smoke exposure as

  • coughing
  • scratchy throat
  • shortness of breath
  • irritated sinuses
  • chest pain
  • headaches
  • stinging eyes
  • runny nose
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a Web site devoted to wildfires and their effects can be on people and pets .

Division of Air Quality spokesman Tom Mather said measurements taken in the Raleigh area Thursday showed "the highest levels of particle pollution that we've ever recorded here over a prolonged period." 

Protect yourself from wildfire smoke

  • Reduce time outdoors. This can provide protection, especially in a tightly closed house where the air-conditioner can re-circulate air instead of bringing in outdoor air.
  • Reduce time engaged in outdoor physical activity. This can be effective in lowering the dose of inhaled air pollutants.
  • Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution that can emit the same pollutants found in wildfire smoke. Indoor sources such as burning cigarettes, gas, propane and wood-burning stoves and furnaces, and activities such as cooking, burning candles and incense and vacuuming can greatly increase the particle levels in a home and should be avoided when wildfire smoke is present.
Source: National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

Travelers warned

The DOT warned motorists Friday to drive with caution in the northeastern part of the state where heavy smoke could limit visibility. Message boards were posted along parts of U.S. Highway 64, U.S. Highway 264, N.C. Highway 45, N.C. Highway 94 and N.C. Highway 99.

No detours were in effect at noon on Friday, but routes could change as conditions change and winds shift, the DOT warned.

Closer to the fire, some residents in eastern North Carolina said they haven't seen the sun for days because of the smoke. A hospital in Hyde County moved its respiratory-care unit to get it as far away from the smoke plume as possible.

Winds spread the smoky air as far west as Greensboro and Winston-Salem late Thursday. 

Fire could burn for weeks

Lightning sparked the fire June 1 in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and it has burned more than 40,000 acres – about 63 square miles – in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties. It is the largest wildfire in North Carolina in more than 20 years and is the largest fire now burning in the U.S., forestry officials said.

The wildfire is burning primarily underground in the peat that abounds in the swampy areas of the wildlife refuge, forcing firefighters to spray water on certain areas for hours.

The dense woods and the smoky conditions have made it difficult for firefighters to battle hot spots. The shifting winds also forced crews to re-establish containment lines to the west after working for days on the east side of the blaze.

"It's kind of tough," said Steve Cannon, a firefighter with the state Division of Forest Resources, said. "You get used to it a little bit. Your eyes burn. But it's something you have to do because usually where the smoke is, you have the chance for (flare-ups)."

State officials said the fire might not be fully contained until late July.

More than $1 million has been spent battling the wildfire, and about 440 firefighters from state and local agencies have been on the job.

Crews were expected to set fire to an addition 20,000 acres near the wildlife refuge in the next few days to help contain the wildfire by burning off potential fuel. The so-called "burnout" could create even more smoke for residents near and far.