Local News

Fires elsewhere produce smoky conditions here

Posted June 21, 2011 11:44 a.m. EDT
Updated July 3, 2011 5:37 p.m. EDT

— Wildfires in eastern and southeastern North Carolina produced hazy conditions and smoky odors across the Triangle Tuesday, authorities said.

A large wildfire was burning over about 500 acres in Bladen County near the Cumberland County line Tuesday evening, forcing the residents of about 30 homes in the Jerome community to evacuate. The fire started Monday, but was nearly extinguished before reigniting Tuesday afternoon. 

Parts of N.C. Highway 53, Johnson Road and Cedar Creek Road in Cumberland County were closed near the fire due to limited visibility from heavy smoke and rescue workers needing space to battle the blaze.

Crews set up a shelter for evacuees at the White Oak Baptist Church on Highway 53.

Fire crews said they hope that heavy rainfall in the area will help extinguish the flames.

In Pender County, a fire likely sparked by lightning late Saturday has burned about 4,800 acres in the Holly Shelter Game Land area. The state Division of Forest Resources and local fire crews were dumping water on the fire from aircraft and using plows to create fire lines to contain the blaze, officials said.

"They are going to try to get it contained and a line started around it as soon as possible and try to hold it where it's at, but it may just take an act of Mother Nature – a good rain storm to come in, a good soaking rain" to put it out," said Brian Haines, a spokesman for the Division of Forest Resources.

The fire is in a remote area, and the hot, dry, windy conditions have created conditions where the peat soil can smolder and ignite, officials said.

"You have organic soils, which can burn for a long time. You have ... vegetation that is ready to burn," said Diane Steltz, a spokeswoman for the Division of Forest Resources.

The state closed the game preserve to the public to aid in firefighting efforts and for safety reasons, officials said. Although no homes are threatened by the fire, officials have warned homeowners in Pender County that they might have to evacuate if firefighters are unable to contain the wildfire.

Fort Bragg officials said a controlled burn on post was completed last Thursday, not Monday as earlier reported. But they said several wildfires have ignited on Fort Bragg in recent days because of dry conditions that might have added to the smoky conditions.

Meanwhile, a wildfire that has burned since May 5 in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare and Hyde counties didn't contribute to the haze in the Triangle, officials said. The fire is 95 percent contained, but it is "nowhere near out," an official said Tuesday.

WRAL meteorologist Mike Maze said winds coming from the southeast carried the smoke into the Triangle early Tuesday but shifted to southerly later in the day. That helped the smoke dissipate a bit in Raleigh and Durham but thicken in Rocky Mount and Goldsboro, he said.

"The good news (Wednesday) is the winds will shift, becoming more southwesterly, and they will be stronger to blow the smoke out of most of the area. So, the skies will be clearer," Maze said. "Through the evening and overnight, the winds will lessen, and the smoke that's out there now is not going to clear. It's going to stick around."

Area 911 centers were inundated with calls about the smoky conditions, prompting local officials to ask people to report only local fires.

The state Division of Air Quality issued a Code Red alert for the Triangle area and Fayetteville until 8 a.m. Tuesday because of the fine particles in the smoky air. The alert means that people should limit their time and activities outdoors.

"You can't control the conditions, so we just try to make the best of it," said Jean Pittard, whose daughter was playing in the Nike Southern 12 tennis tournament in Cary.

Cary canceled outdoor sports programs and activities scheduled for Tuesday evening because of the poor air quality.

The state Department of Transportation urged drivers to slow down and turn on their headlights if they encounter low visibility because of the hazy conditions.