Local News

Smoke from N.C. wildfire sparking health concerns

Posted June 12, 2008 3:49 p.m. EDT
Updated June 13, 2008 6:12 a.m. EDT

— As the smoky layer from an eastern North Carolina wildfire settles more densely over the Triangle, it is putting sensitive people at higher risk for health problems.

"The measurements we've gotten today are the highest levels of particle pollution that we've ever recorded here over a prolonged period,” state Division of Air Quality spokesperson Tom Mather said Thursday.

The division issued a Code Red warning for the region and for Rocky Mount on Thursday afternoon, and it is expected to remain in effect through Friday.

"Code Red means that the area is generally unhealthy for everyone,” Mather said.

"Some of it (smoke) can even diffuse into the bloodstream as well. So the people we are really concerned about are those who know they have underlying heart and respiratory problems,” the WRAL Health Team’s Dr. Allen Mask said.


Light winds will leave smoke undisturbed

WRAL meteorologist Chris Thompson said light winds overnight would have little effect on the smoke, allowing it to sit over the Triangle and likely making its effects worse on Friday morning. Southeast winds could help move the smoke out of the area later in the day, he said.

A dense smoke advisory has been issued for counties stretching from the Triangle to the central North Carolina coast and will remain in effect until 11 a.m. Friday, Thompson said.

Regulators initially issued a Code Orange alert for the region Thursday, but the particulate matter – ash and soot in the smoke – were heavier than expected, prompting them to heighten the air-quality alert.

Under a Code Red alert, people are urged to avoid outdoor activities. The warning especially applies to children, the elderly and anyone with a respiratory problem, officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a Web site devoted to wildfires and their effects can be on people and pets .

“We are telling virtually everybody to stay indoors, particularly those of us who like to get out and run and jog. That is absolutely a no-no,” Mask said.

Prevailing winds had carried smoke from the fire over the Outer Banks for the past week before a cold front and a low-pressure system moved across the state late Tuesday. That circulation brought easterly winds that began to carry the smoke to the Triangle.

WRAL viewers said smoke was creating haze and a smoky smell from Henderson to Chapel Hill to Johnston County. The smoke prompted more than 300 people to call Wake County 911 to report a nearby fire, authorities said.


Map: Areas reporting smoky skies, poor air quality

In the map below, the wildfire's area is shown in red. Dark blue pins are where visibility is reduced. Light blue pins signal the presence of smoky conditions. Red pins denote areas under an air-quality warning.

Many drivers switched on their headlights in the middle of the day to help negotiate streets around Raleigh and be seen by other drivers.

"Most of the cars have their lights on today. I noticed it in commuting across the city," driver Dave Bamford said.

The smoky conditions definitely got everyone's attention on Thursday.

“We're not going to be out here long today,” mother Brandy Currence said while visiting Pullen Park.

“I’m in construction, so I’m around hazardous stuff. So I didn't give it (smoke) a second though,” Lake Johnson fisherman Ben Woodard said.

Closer to the fire, some residents in eastern North Carolina said they haven't seen the sun for days because of the smoke. A hospital in Hyde County moved its respiratory-care unit to get it as far away from the smoke plume as possible.

Winds spread the smoky air as far west as Greensboro and Winston-Salem late Thursday, and the Division of Air Quality issued a Code Orange warning for the Piedmont Triad region and for Fayetteville on Friday.

A Code Orange warning urges people to limit outdoor activities.


Ways to help protect yourself from wildfire smoke

  • Reduce time outdoors. This can provide protection, especially in a tightly closed house where the air-conditioner can re-circulate air instead of bringing in outdoor air.
  • Reduce time engaged in outdoor physical activity. This can be effective in lowering the dose of inhaled air pollutants.
  • Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution that can emit the same pollutants found in wildfire smoke. Indoor sources such as burning cigarettes, gas, propane and wood-burning stoves and furnaces, and activities such as cooking, burning candles and incense and vacuuming can greatly increase the particle levels in a home and should be avoided when wildfire smoke is present.

Source: National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion


Wildfire to burn for weeks

Lightning sparked the fire June 1 in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and it has burned more than 40,000 acres – about 63 square miles – in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties. It is the largest wildfire in North Carolina in more than 20 years and is the largest fire now burning in the U.S., forestry officials said.

The wildfire was about 40 percent contained Thursday and was burning primarily underground in the peat that abounds in the swampy areas of the wildlife refuge, forcing firefighters to spray water on certain areas for hours.

The dense woods and the smoky conditions have made it difficult for firefighters to battle hot spots. The shifting winds also forced crews to re-establish containment lines to the west after working for days on the east side of the blaze.

"It's kind of tough," said Steve Cannon, a firefighter with the state Division of Forest Resources, said. "You get used to it a little bit. Your eyes burn. But it's something you have to do because usually where the smoke is, you have the chance for (flare-ups)."

State officials said the fire might not be fully contained until late July.

More than $1 million has been spent battling the wildfire, and about 440 firefighters from state and local agencies have been on the job.

Crews were expected to set fire to an addition 20,000 acres near the wildlife refuge in the next few days to help contain the wildfire by burning off potential fuel. The so-called "burnout" could create even more smoke for residents near and far.