Fire foils firefighters

Published 3:05 am Saturday, June 7, 2008

By Staff
Approximately 30,000 acres consumed in three counties
Staff Writer
PONZER - A fire that had already consumed more than 28,000 acres in eastern North Carolina by Thursday burned at least another 1,000 acres by Friday evening, according to forestry officials.
At 5 p.m. Friday, the ground fire burning in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties had scorched 29,970 acres of federal and private property, according to the N.C. Division of Forest Resources. The fire was ignited by lightning Sunday near the Ponzer community in Hyde County. Officials will not predict when the fire will be extinguished, as ground fires in the region often burn for weeks or months.
The smoke column from the fire reached higher than 45,000 feet Thursday and could be seen from outer space, according to Hannah Thompson, an assistant Wayne County ranger with the N.C. Forest Service and who was called to Hyde County to help with the containment effort. Friday, the column began to create its own weather system, according to officials. Thunder could be heard Friday as far away as Washington — at least 40 miles from the fire’s front. From a distant vantage point east of Belhaven, the smoke column is nearly indistinguishable from a thundercloud.
Martin, Hertford, Bertie and Beaufort counties have felt the effects of the fire, if not the heat. Smoke has been blowing into those counties periodically, depending on wind direction. At points closer to the fire’s epicenter, one cannot see more than 50 feet in any direction because the smoke is so thick.
Combating this fire is different from fighting most forest fires, Thompson said. Once the surface fire burns away brush and crops, what remains are pocosin fuels — decayed plant matter that smolders rather than burns, she said.
Firefighters have a fleet of machinery at their disposal to fight the fire. Friday morning, 23 tractor/plow units, two flex-tracks vehicles, two helicopters, eight fire engines, a scout plane and an air tanker were at their disposal.
Containment of the fire — creating barriers against its spread — is the first priority, Thompson said. An operation to pump water from Lake Phelps was scheduled to begin Friday. In the following days, officials will use the water — pumped into ditches then into trucks — to extinguish hot spots once the fire front has been contained, Thompson said.
After five days with more than 100 state and federal employees, in cooperation with volunteer fire departments and law-enforcement personnel from four area counties, fighting the fire, 30 percent of the blaze had been contained as of Friday. Bill Swartley, Bill Swartley, the forest service’s chief information officer on scene in Ponzer, estimated the fire has caused an estimated $598,920 in damage, though no homes or structures have been destroyed.
Shifting winds, temperatures in the mid-90s and dry conditions are causing difficulty for firefighters to combat the blaze, according Thompson.
Forecasts call for dry, hot and windy conditions. For now. the fire continues to spread east and northeast, according to Swartley. A 12-hour fire forecast issued Friday afternoon indicated the fire will keep spreading northeast into the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Swartley said.
On Friday evening, Washington County Manager David Peoples said he is hoping prevailing winds will continue to come from the west. The fire jumped Evans Road in Washington County early Friday, but each of those advances was beaten back, he said. At least 5,200 acres of Washington County had burned by Friday evening — most of that swamp, forest and farmland, according to Peoples.