FAIRFIELD, N.C. — A wildfire that started on a wildlife refuge in rural eastern North Carolina and burned into privately owned rural land doubled in size Thursday as it sent smoke and ash as far away as the Outer Banks and neighboring Virginia.
The fire consumed nearly 30,00 acres of forest and fields at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. About half the fire was burning on the refuge and about half was on private land Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties, officials said.
The fire is the largest in the state so far this year, officials said.
The fire started from lightning Sunday at the wildlife refuge and gradually spread during the week because of dry conditions and flammable peat soil.
The North Carolina Forestry Service dropped water from helicopters Thursday.
Earlier Thursday, smoke and ash filled the air in the town of Manteo, about 45 miles east of the fire, as well as in Chesapeake, Va., some 75 miles north of the refuge, officials said.
No injuries have been reported and no structures have been damaged. However, a voluntary evacuation was issued for homes in parts of Tyrrell County.
Officials couldn’t get an exact size of the fire because the smoke was so dense that pilots couldn’t see the fire's boundaries from the air.
“When the fire went through, it killed a lot of the green vegetation, and once it starts to shed and fall on the ground, then it has the possibility to reignite again,” state Division of Forest Services public information officer Ned Berg said.
The organic soil is another problem for the 150 state and local firefighters battling the blaze.
“Once the organic soil burns, the roots of the trees will actually fall over,” Berg said.
Emergency workers said they had evacuated a community around Lake Phelps, telling 39 homeowners to leave.
“It happened very fast. We all had to get out of here. The sheriff said we had 10 minutes,” evacuee Claudia Dooley said.
About 80 homes in Hyde and Washington counties have been evacuated. Some have sought refuge at a nearby fire station.
Early Thursday, officials told Rani Beasley that is was too dangerous to stay in her Hyde County home.
"I was terrified but you go into overdrive," Beasley said.
“We are going to contain this fire. The question is where we’re going to contain it,” North Carolina Division of Forest Resources spokesperson Bill Swartley said.
Tony Spencer, Hyde County Emergency Management coordinator, said Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties are all under a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, people who live near the blaze were cautioned to avoid breathing smoke.
"People and their pets living in the immediate vicinity of the fire, or downwind of the smoke, should stay inside as much as possible," said Wesley Smith, Hyde County's health director.
Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge includes 110,106 acres in the three counties.
Spencer said that unless there's a very large rainfall, the fire and smoke may last for two months, adding that ash from the fire has been reported 75 miles away.