North Carolina – Thewildfire burning through the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge claimedanother 3,000 acres by Monday afternoon, extending a smoky haze toward the OuterBanks and pushing firefighters to combat its creep to the northeast.
The blaze — the largest activewildfire now in the United States — has burned more than 35,000 acres since alightning strike June 1 ignited its smoldering march in Eastern North Carolina.In just 10 days, the fire has consumed more acres than the state usually losesto wildfires in an average year.
A state of emergency remains ineffect for Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties, though the fire’s progress didnot keep some area farmers from continuing to work fields Monday along the sameroads carrying firefighting crews to the head of the blaze.
No injuries have been reported,and no buildings have been destroyed.
Firefighters watched and waitedMonday for the fire to inch toward the burnout line they set up along SeagoingRoad. Crews on the ground used existing dirt roads to build fire lines andcontain the fire where possible, with the help of helicopters and air tankers.
But the peat-filled soil andrugged terrain have hindered firefighters’ efforts to navigate through scrubpines and attack the fire head-on.
Scotty Parks, an equipmentoperator for the N.C. Forest Service, said the ground is too soft to supportbulldozers off the fire roads. And the agency’s smaller pieces of earth-movingequipment are not rugged enough to burst through the scrub pines.
“It’s a Catch-22,”Parks said. “So now we’re having to wait for it to get out to the roads todeal with it.”
The state forest serviceestimated that more than $1.1 million has been spent battling the fire, notincluding costs incurred by local and federal agencies.
Firefighters have setcontainment lines around 40 percent of the fire, said Hannah Thompson, aspokeswoman with the Forest Service.
Dry conditions are challengingefforts to battle the blaze as it advances through shrubby swamp lands withplenty of vegetation and organic fuel in the soil to burn.
Smoke could linger
As firefighters continued topump water from nearby Phelps Lake to help extinguish spot fires, area residentswere told that smoke from the fire could linger for months.
Although no one was evacuatedMonday from the nearby communities of Newland Township and Cross Landing, acontingency plan was put in place.
Along the southwest edge,firefighting crews began flooding blocks of timber to keep the fire fromspreading in that direction.
“This part of the firewe’ve seen is subdued today,” said Don Kuykendall, a Forest Service safetyofficer.
Ahead of the northeast perimeterof the leading edge of the fire, firefighters in a helicopter circling justabove the treetops dropped golf-ball-size pellets that helped ignite asmoldering line of fire. The burnout operation aimed to eliminate brush,vegetation and other fuel for the fire.
As flakes of ash floated downthrough the clouds of smoke, the new line of fire prompted deer to bolt out ofthe cover of the pine trees, leap a canal and sprint to the smoky remnants ofthe refuge on the other side of the road. They were joined in their escape by ablack bear, which took a couple of steps up the road before bolting in theopposite direction after spotting firefighters about 100 yards away.
Stretching for about 93,000acres, the Pocosin Lakes refuge is home to the endangered red wolf, black bears,deer and hundreds of species of migratory birds.
Not every creature was swiftenough to escape. The charred remains of a snapping turtle were found just a fewsteps away from a canal.
But the red wolves and many ofthe other animals living in the refuge were likely able to outpace the fire’sprogress, said Bonnie Strawser, a visitor services specialist with the U.S. Fishand Wildlife Service.
7 bears in one yard
The animals were finding theirways into the yards of the refuge’s human neighbors.
Strawser said she fielded atleast a dozen calls Monday from area residents reporting the uncommon sight of abear or some other refuge animal on their property. One woman called to saythere were seven bears in her yard.
“She said, ‘I’m scared togo to my mailbox,’ and I said, ‘So don’t go to your mailbox,’ ” Strawsersaid.
“These animals are panicked,and they’re not behaving normal. A person’s front yard is not the type ofhabitat they’re looking for. They’re looking for places to escape the fire.”
A cold front moving toward thearea was expected to increase wind speeds today, National Weather Servicemeteorologist John Jacobson said. With the fire projected to continue spreadingfarther northeast into the refuge today, firefighters could be challenged bywinds gusting up to 20 mph.
“If we get any strong stormwith strong winds, that’s a problem,” Jacobson said.