State News

Firefighters gain ground in battle with wildfire

Posted June 16, 2008 7:49 a.m. EDT
Updated June 16, 2008 2:17 p.m. EDT

— Firefighters battling a wildfire in eastern North Carolina that has spread smoke as far as Raleigh brought more of the blaze under control on Monday.

Officials said the fire in and around the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is now about 60 percent contained. That's up from the 40 percent of the past several days, but officials caution it could burn for weeks without heavy rains.

Firefighters Monday were pumping 6 million gallons an hour from two lakes to saturate the peat soil in and around the refuge.

The pumping is "the equivalent of moving up the hurricane season," Dean McAlister, spokesman for the incident command center for the fire, said Monday.

The fire has burned about 41,000 acres – about 64 square miles – but didn't grow in size over the weekend, state Division of Forest Resources officials said Monday. The fire was about 60 percent contained, but 5 miles of containment lines still need to be built.

Heavy smoke spreading for miles from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge has also prompted health warnings.

As of Monday, the state Division of Air Quality had issued a Code Purple air quality alert for four consecutive days for areas downwind of the fire, said spokesman Tom Mather. The alert level is the second most serious and the most serious ever issued by North Carolina authorities and means the air is very unhealthy, he said.

Dense smoke advisories also were in effect until 10 p.m. Monday.

Map: Progress of the fire

In the map below, the area of the fire is designated in red. Pushpins signal poor air quality reports, with the darker pins indicating reports of limited visibility due to the smoke in the air.

Firefighters will pump water from Lake Phelps and New Lake to saturate land closest to communities. Most of that water comes from Lake Phelps, where firefighters have permission to drain up to 5 inches, he said.

"We can only do this in limited areas so we're focusing on areas where there's the biggest threat to residents," McAlister said.

Homeowners near New Lake were allowed to return home after being ordered to leave the area last week.

The fire began June 1 with a lightning strike on private land.

Higher humidity and lower temperatures helped firefighters over the weekend, but higher temperatures and winds were forecast for Monday. Thunderstorms are forecast for Tuesday, and any rain would aid firefighters.

Firefighters in danger

One big concern for firefighters' safety is that the fire has burned soil away from tree roots, McAlister. "Any gusty winds would push a lot of those trees over," he said. "That will present hazards to firefighters working the lines today."

Hyde County has eliminated all evacuation orders or advisories, which was particularly good news for a community that had lived under an advisory since early last week.

As of Monday, 514 people were involved in the firefighting effort, down from a high of 570 last week. It has cost more than $3.8 million so far to fight the fire.

You can help

North Carolina Baptist Men Disaster Relief is providing showers, laundry services and food to firefighters in Hyde County. To donate to the relief effort, send a check to: NCBM Disaster Relief, P.O. Box 1107, Cary, NC 27512.