Wildfire burning deep into peat

We got a little rain here in Washington County last night and today, but not enough to dampen the stubborn wildfire that’s been burning on the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge since June 1. And the daily report on the fire that came out at 6 p.m. had some startling information in it. The North Carolina Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that the fire hasn’t spread beyond the 41,000 acres that have been burning for most of the time since it started, but it’s burning down into the peat. In some places, it’s burned four feet of peat.

The depth of the peat ranges from two feet to six feet in most of the burning area, but in a few places it’s as deep as 10 feet. Today’s report also included this explanation about how water is being moved around to fight the fire:

“Water pumping operations continue to reinforce fire lines. Up to 50 pumps of various types may be working at any one time to move water around the fire. High volume lift pumps are used to pump water from lakes into canals, and to pump water from one canal to another. Smaller pumps are used to deliver water from canals to the fire through irrigation systems. Sprinkling water on top of the ground prevents flare-ups near the containment lines, but it does not completely extinguish the fire burning below ground.

“Forty-four wildland fire engines are assigned to the fire today. They carry from 200 to 1,200 gallons of water, and can move to strategic locations around the perimeter of the fire to suppress hot spots and flare-ups.”

Firefighters are expecting the fire to become “more active” later this week when hot, dry weather returns. And the drought is prompting people to cut back on or cancel fireworks shows for the upcoming July 4 holiday weekend.

The photo at the top of this entry is from the website Firehouse.com and shows firefighters from the Southern Shores Volunteer Fire Department in Dare County battling the blaze. The website reported that as of June 27, the cost of fighting the fire has exceeded $4 million.


Windy weekend adds to fire problems

It’s been a windy weekend here, and the wind has caused some problems for firefighters trying to control the nearby wildfires. This photo provided by the North Carolina Forestry Service shows how the winds fanned the flames of the fire burning in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

The fire hasn’t extended beyond the 41,000 acres where it’s been burning in peat for several weeks. The local weather radar shows some thunderstorms moving our way, and the weather is expected to reach here late tonight or early Monday morning. I don’t think anyone expects the storms to put out the fires, but maybe they will at least dampen things a bit and help the firefighters contain the blaze. Today’s report says the fire is about 75 percent contained.
More info at http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes.


Smoky morning

The wildfire at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near here is still burning. This is what Washington Street looked like when I went outside around six o'clock this morning. We’re about three blocks from the Roanoke River and Plymouth’s downtown business district on Water Street. Normally I can see all the way to Water Street. But the wind shifted sometime last night, and smoke from the fire had settled over the town this morning.

The fire was started by a lightning strike on June 1. The official update from the state Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is that the fire has not increased from the 41,000 acres that have been burning for several weeks. About 330 firefighters are battling the blaze.

The fire is about 75 percent contained, but won’t be extinguished until we get a tropical weather system that dumps a lot of rain in a very short time. It’s burning peat, so all they can do at the moment is try to keep the fire from spreading. A joint news release today from the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service says the firefighters are pumping water from nearby lakes and canals to dampen the peat, and they're also going to dig a test well near the fire in hopes that that will provide more water for firefighters.

More information about the fire is at http://inciweb.org/state/34.

So we’re in for a long, smoky summer.


"A giant charcoal briquette"

The wind shifted here in Washington County late this afternoon, and when I went outside around 5:15 p.m. to go to a meeting, a thin blue haze and the strong odor of smoke hung in the air. It’s smoke from a sizable wildfire that’s been burning in the nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife refuge since June 1. The fire was caused by a lightning strike.

It’s probably going to be burning for quite a while. The fire is burning in about 40,000 acres of peat, which is partially decomposed vegetation. If you had time to wait a few million years, that peat could become coal. As the above photo from NASA shows, the fire has sent a plume of smoke more than 45,000 feet into the atmosphere.

I did a story about the fire for National Geographic News last week (see http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080613-wildfire-peat.html). Gary Mease, a firefighter I talked to for the story, came up with one of the best news quotes I’ve heard in a while. He told me the area where the fire is burning is like “a giant charcoal briquette.”

Mease has had a busy spring, and he and hundreds of other firefighters probably will be staying busy until a tropical weather system of some sort brings enough rainfall our way to give the Pocosin Lakes and the rest of the state a good soaking. That could be months from now, if at all. We got a bit of relief a month or so ago from the drought that’s gripped this area since last fall, but rain has become scarce again and the woods and swamps are dry.

Mease, who’s with the state Division of Forest Resources, had been fighting a fire in Texas for 18 days. He returned to his home in Hayesville deep in the North Carolina mountains around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 8. And by Tuesday, he was almost 500 miles away and fighting another fire here in eastern North Carolina.

And if the firefighters didn’t already have enough to do, a second fire broke out last week in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the North Carolina-Virginia border about 80 miles from here. That fire started when logging equipment caught fire as loggers were removing cedar trees that were knocked down by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The fire was burning in about 1,000 acres by Friday afternoon. As of today, the blaze has grown to cover about 2,400 acres, and firefighters say it’s about 20 percent contained.

There’s no telling how many thousands of trees Isabel took down when it came through here. A few miles north of Plymouth near the mouth of the Roanoke River, there were hundreds of trees swirled and toppled like matchsticks. Because they were fanned out in all directions, I’m guessing that they were taken down by a tornado that spun off from the hurricane. And now they’ve been lying on the ground for five years drying out, and I’m getting uneasy just writing about it.

So now we have to hope that a weak, wet tropical storm blows through here soon and dumps a foot or so of rain. And in the meantime, we’re living next to a giant charcoal briquette.


Indestructible Bicycle Man pedals across Florida

Alan Snel, an old friend of mine in Tampa, has accomplished something remarkable. He’s ridden a bicycle across Florida from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s about 170 miles, and he did it in a dawn-to-dusk trek Sunday from Vero Beach on the Atlantic side to Clearwater on the Gulf Coast.

Pedal-powered marathons are nothing new to Al. He’s biked across the U.S. and makes an annual circumnavigation of Lake Okeechobee on his bicycle. He does the trip around the giant lake on the 140-mile-long Herbert Hoover Dike. A few years ago, he also dared to take on New York City traffic when he commuted by bicycle to a job in Manhattan.

Al made the trip Sunday to honor the memory of his friend Bill Fox, who was killed in a bicycling accident in upstate New York in 2002. Al was accompanied on his trip by a road crew that included friends and fellow bicycle enthusiasts.

Al’s account of his trip can be viewed on his blog, “Alan Snel’s Bicycle Stories and other Misadventures on the Road of Life” (http://alansnel.blogspot.com/).

The photo above shows Al cooling his feet in the Gulf of Mexico after he completed his trip. Al didn’t say who shot the picture.

I’ve known Al since the early 1990s, when we covered the same local politics beat for intensively competing newspapers in Florida. We’d spend our days trying to beat each other’s brains out on the news front, and then meet for beers and baseball at Thomas J. White Stadium (aka “The Tommy”), home of the Florida State League’s St. Lucie Mets in Port St. Lucie. Al didn’t bother taking a car to the stadium. He’d ride his bike.