"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.

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