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Coastal wildfire gives Triangle smoky air, prompts advisories

Residents around the Triangle reported a strange odor Tuesday morning, and state officials attribute the smell to a wildfire in Dare and Hyde counties.

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MANNS HARBOR, N.C. — Smoke from a wildfire in Dare and Hyde counties filtered into the Triangle early Tuesday, prompting health concerns among some residents and complaints of a foul odor from others.

The wildfire has charred about 21,500 acres in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge since Thursday. Officials said it was about 50 percent contained by Tuesday evening.

The fire threatened three homes, and it forced officials to close U.S. Highway 264 between Stumpy Point and Engelhard in Hyde County

"I think the real threat to the people will be eliminated soon," said Bill Sweet, spokesman for the Southern Area Incident Command Blue Team, a group comprised of state and federal agencies that handles wildfires and other complex emergency situations.

"People will see smoke for some months to come, but I don’t think it will be threatening at all," Sweet said.

As helicopters dumped water on hot spots, firefighters set a backfire Tuesday to help contain the wildfire and halt its move toward Stumpy Point. The backfire was expected to continue burning into Wednesday.

"We are essentially fighting fire with fire," Sweet said. "The wind is to our favor. We needed a wind coming from the northeast to push our fire into the wildfire."

The swampy wildlife refuge is an ecosystem that depends on fires to control the vegetation, he said. Crews would normally perform controlled burns in the area every few years to prevent wildfires, he said, but budget constraints have prevented that in recent years.

"Had there been (a recent controlled burn), we wouldn't have nearly the fire that we have today," he said.

Curiosity about the wildfire prompted some University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students headed to the Outer Banks to stop and check it out.

"We saw a lot of smoke and decided to take a detour, and here we are. We have found quite an adventure," Kate Tidwell said.

"We actually made a wager in the car as to whether is was a rain cloud or a fire," Laura Kirchhofer said.

Stumpy Point resident Sheila Goldman said she was keeping a close eye on the fire's progress. The smoke from the fire choked the area in recent days, she said.

"It was awful. I had to put the windows down (and) turn the AC on. That's what happens when we have a forest fire around here," Goldman said.

The state Division of Air Quality issued an advisory for parts of eastern North Carolina for Tuesday and Wednesday because of the smoke plume.

Unhealthy air was forecast for the area around the fire and the Outer Banks from Nags Head to Ocracoke. The elderly, young children and people with respiratory problems could experience problems in adjacent counties and areas as far south as Jacksonville.

Counties as far west as Johnston, Harnett and Cumberland could have an intermittent problems with air quality, officials said.

Some Triangle residents reported problems with the smoke on Tuesday morning.

"I got up to let the dog out, and it smelled like burning but not like a good burning like a fire or a grill," Cary resident Magee Jaski said. "It was a bad odor, like plastic burning."

"I smelled kind of a bitter, ashy, tar, smoky kind of smell. It kind of reacted to my senses a little bit. I started getting allergies," said Micah Spinelli, a student at North Carolina State University. "It was one of the first times I smelled that before, so it concerned me and I was concerned for my health."

Tom Mather, a spokesman for the Division of Air Quality, said monitors in Raleigh and Goldsboro detected elevated levels of particle pollution between 6 and 7 a.m. Tuesday, indicating that smoke from the wildfire was blowing in from the east. The levels dropped after that spike, he said.

Three years ago, a wildfire that burned for weeks in the peat bogs in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Hyde and Tyrrell counties often created hazy conditions in the Triangle.

Although variable winds late Tuesday morning and Tuesday afternoon helped dissipate the smoke in the Triangle, WRAL meteorologist Mike Maze said low-level winds will blow in from the coast for most of the next few days, which could bring the smoke back over the region.

"By Friday, I think we'll have more of a westerly wind that will blow the smoke away from us," Maze said.

The cause of the fire hasn't been determined, Sweet said, because investigators haven't been able to get to the location where it started.


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