State News

Fire's footprint grows by 10 percent as winds whip

A wildfire burning in eastern North Carolina is the largest active fire in the country and the largest to hit the state in 22 years.

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COLUMBIA, N.C. — A wildfire in eastern North Carolina became the state's largest in 22 years, as winds helped it grow by more than 10 percent and force the evacuation of 50 homes on Tuesday.

Firefighters scrambled to strengthen or build about 20 miles of containment lines, expecting that the wildfire will push toward the northeastern boundary of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge by mid-morning Wednesday.

"We hope to hold it at those containment lines," said Jody Brady, a spokesman for the North Carolina Forest Service. "We'll find out when the fire reaches them."

A predicted shift in the winds to the northeast will likely relieve pressure on the north end of the fire on Wednesday, but could help ignite more spot fires on the southern end of the blaze.

The fire in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties was sparked June 1 by a lightning strike. It has now spread to 40,195 acres, or 64 square miles. The fire is about 40 percent contained, officials said.

While sporadic afternoon thunderstorms poured rain on portions of the fire on Tuesday, they also stirred erratic winds that blew life into pop-up spot fires. And the storms also pushed thick smoke to the ground, limiting visibility across the area, including Highway 64 west of Columbia.

"Sometimes the smoke gets so heavy in there you can't see," Brady said.

The 50 homeowners near New Lake were asked to leave at about 6 p.m. because of a fire that popped up in the area. Those homes were also evacuated last week. No homes have burned in the fire, and no one has been injured.

It is the largest active fire in the United States and will need days of steady rain to be extinguished, said Hannah Thompson of the North Carolina Forest Service. Officials said the next largest wildfire was a 2,100-acre fire – a couple of square miles – in New Mexico.

Much of the North Carolina fire is burning underground in organic peat soil.

Response to the fire has cost nearly $1.4 million for the state.

Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole urged the White House on Tuesday to consider emergency assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency originally denied the request.

"I urge you to encourage FEMA to reconsider its denial of assistance and help bring relief to the area's residents and volunteers working to fight this dangerous fire," Dole wrote in a letter to President Bush.