USA — A North Carolina wildfire approaching the size of Norfolk defied efforts to contain it Wednesday, but a wind shift spared more populated areas from the stifling smoke it generated.
From the sky, a huge plume could be seen above the nearly 30,000-acre fire as teams using bulldozers and an air tanker tried to manage its spread in a rural three-county area about 50 miles west of the barrier islands.
Thursday evening, the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources said 75 homes and 20 outbuildings were threatened by a fire only 30 percent contained. Firefighters stood guard around some of the homes Thursday, trying to wet the area around them.
The fire has burned so large that firefighters on the scene said some flames have reached 250 feet, or 25 stories, into the air. It has burned some 45 square miles. The city of Norfolk is about 54 square miles, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
There’s no word on how long it could take to put out the fire, but some officials expect to be on the scene for months.
State and federal personnel total more than 100, but there are many more county and town firefighters and emergency officials helping, the forestry division said.
On Thursday afternoon in Hyde County, a team of eight men stood on a dirt road planning their next offensive.
They had just used four bulldozers called tractor plows to dig a more than 40-foot-wide ditch and waited to see whether it could hold back the blaze.
The peat-filled soil, combined with often-changing winds, has allowed the fire over and over again to jump these containment lines.
Firefighters said they know all too well of the peat’s incendiary powers.
“You turn it up and it’s dry, then it burns,” said Lynn Clayton, a member of Ponzer Volunteer Fire Department, formed about a year ago. “It’s like charcoal – you can put it on a grill.”
Since Tuesday night, the fire has given little advantage to the people challenging it. The peat can be as deep as 8 feet in some places and allows the soil itself to burn.
In addition to tackling the fire from the ground with 23 tractor plows, a 2,000-gallon air tanker arrived Thursday. Two helicopters also have provided aerial views of the blaze.
The National Weather Service said the winds shifted Thursday afternoon to an easterly, then southeasterly direction that will likely give relief to the tourist communities along the coast. Heavy smoke that was over the northern Outer Banks earlier had cleared out by late morning.
But Jim Merrell, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Morehead City, said high-level smoke
will be evident along the coast.
“They’ll probably be smelling it on the Outer Banks the next few days,” he said.
Trish Blackmon, health education and community development specialist with the Dare County Department of Public Health, said there have been no air-quality advisories issued for Dare County. But the intermittent smoky air has provoked some worries from residents, she said.
“We are getting phone calls,” she said. “It can be intimidating. Most of them want to know what’s causing it.”
The state has issued warnings advising residents to avoid inhaling smoke in areas closer to the fire.
Animals in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge should be fine, said Chris Lucash, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in charge of the red wolf restoration project that has been going on at the refuge since the late 1980s.
If the fire threatens animals – deer, bear, raccoons, squirrels, birds and the red wolves that live there – they will move away, Lucash said.
If the fire had come a few weeks earlier, there would have been concern for the baby red wolves that might have been in dens. But the fire, later in the year, shouldn’t be a threat to the area’s animal population, Lucash said.
“They will simply move to an area where the wind is pushing the smoke away,” he said. “In some areas, the fire has been raging, but wildlife has evolved where fire is a part of their existence. There’s something in wild animals that tells them to avoid these situations.”