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Smoke inhibits fire-fighting efforts in eastern N.C.

Smoke from a wildfire limited visibility along eastern North Carolina highways and made battling the blaze more difficult for firefighters Friday.

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FAIRFIELD, N.C. — A wildfire in eastern North Carolina grew to nearly 30,000 acres Friday and produced smoke that made battling the blaze more difficult.

Thick clouds of smoke and flames jumping from tree to tree in the woods of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge kept firefighters on the ground at a distance. From the air, tanker airplanes and helicopters dropped water on the blaze with limited success.

"It's really smoky, kind of hard to see…low visibility," volunteeer fireman Josh Clayton said.

The state Division of Air Quality reported very high levels of particle pollution due to the smoke at monitoring stations in Martin County. The smoke in the air can be dangerous, especially to those with heart disease and respiratory ailments, and to the elderly, pregnant or young children.

Residents living downwind of the fire were urged to stay indoors to limit their smoke exposure.

Hyde County resident James Boyd said he was in the Beaufort County area Thursday night and found it hard to see or breathe due to the smoke.

Smoke from the fire could be seen and smelled for hundreds of miles, spreading as far north as Richmond, Va.

"You can't really see it. You can smell it," said Sonia Mark, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Wakefield, Va., more than 80 miles away.

North Carolina Forest Service spokesman Bill Swartley noted that travelers on U.S. highways 64 and 264 and N.C. highways 45, 94 and 99 could expect heavy smoke and traffic delays throughout the area.

Swartley said he did not expect those roads to be closed.

The state Department of Transportation positioned message boards along major routes in the fire zone to inform motorists of dense smoke, road closures and detour routes.

A total of 29,970 acres – almost 50 square miles – have been burned by the fire that started with a lightning strike Sunday in Pocosin Lakes Refuge. Half of the fire was burning on the refuge and half was on private land in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties, where a burn ban took effect Thursday night.

The fire was about 30 percent contained Friday.

Swartley said firefighters hoped to contain the fire at N.C. Highway 94.

No damage to homes has been reported. About 50 homes were evacuated. The Red Cross set up shelters at the Ponzer and Belhaven fire departments.

“We are going to contain this fire. The question is where we’re going to contain it,” Swartley said.

Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency Friday for the counties of Hyde, Tyrell and Washington, asking all local and state agencies to contribute to the firefighting effort.

The governor's office said 200 firefighters were battling the blaze, along with air support from tanker planes and helicopters.

The weather forecast does not offer any relief. Extreme heat is predicted for the next four days and no significant rainfall is on the horizon, the weather service said. Residents were warned to be aware of flying embers and falling ash which could ignite areas outside the main fire.

The Forest Service held a community meeting Friday at the Ponzer firehouse and planned another one Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Vernon James Center in Roper.


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