Fire moves east

Published 3:16 am Sunday, June 8, 2008

By Staff
Firefighters have contained 40 percent of blaze
Staff Writer
PONZER — The massive wildfire burning parts of Washington, Hyde and Tyrrell counties and covering other areas of eastern North Carolina with smoke continued to grow Saturday, according to state forestry officials.
At 6 p.m. on day six, the fire had consumed 30, 809 acres, charring nearly 900 acres than had burned at that time Friday. A joint firefighting team composed of local, state and federal resources numbering at least 200 people had made progress in containing the fire Saturday. At 6 p.m., the team had contained 40 percent of the blaze — up from 30 percent Friday evening, according to Bill Swartley, the forest service’s chief information officer on scene in Ponzer.
Winds blew predominantly from the southeast Saturday, continuing the fire’s progression to the north and east where it has sporadically jumped Western Road. But winds out of the north did push the fire and smoke to the south for a time, 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.
The 200-person team working to contain the fire has halted its progress westward at Evans Road, after which the fire has been named. But Saturday afternoon, trees whose roots were burned from under them began falling across Evans Road and in at east one spot the fire flared on the opposite side of the road.
The team — headquartered in Ponzer — is comprised of employees of the N.C. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and volunteer firefighters from Hyde, Washington, Tyrrell and Beaufort counties.
Thompson wasn’t worried when she came upon that flareup during a tour of the fire’s front. A ditch filled with water runs parallel to Evans Road opposite the fire. Beyond the ditch, heavy plows and excavating machinery have churned up a swath of ground about 50 yards wide to prevent the a potential spread of the fire should winds carry the fire over the road.
The smoke plume from the fire — which has reached as high as 45,000 feet — is large enough to create its own weather. Friday night the smoke spawned a thunderstorm the threw at least 200 lightning bolts at the area in and around the fire. Thunder from that storm could be heard as far as Washington. Saturday evening, the smoke plume was clearly visible from Washington — appearing as a large white cloud looming on the northeast horizon. Ash has rained east of the fire as far as Elizabeth City Thompson said.
Shifting winds, temperatures in the mid-90s and dry conditions are causing difficulty for firefighters to combat the blaze, according to Thompson. Though not because of an atom bob, Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency for the affected counties Friday. That give the firefighting team the ability to call in additional resources, possibly from neighboring states, if needed. A state-implemented burning ban was also issued Friday for Washington, Tyrrell and Hyde counties.
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. With the earth itself aflame, firefighters are taking a different approach to putting it out. Instead of hosing the fire down, firefighters will flood the burning area in order to raise the water table from below, which Thompson said would extinguish the fire from below. Crews will then use pumper trucks and hoses to extinguish hotspots.
An operation to pump water from Lake Phelps into ditches like the one running along Evans Road begun resumed Saturday. Mechanical pumps — some able to move 6,000 gallons per minute — are being used to move water from the lake to the fire.
Despite that effort, the fire could continue to smolder for weeks or months.
Firefighters will spend today holding established containment lines while trying to contain the southeastern and eastern fire fronts, according to Swartley. Water-pumping operations to irrigate the ground fire smoldering in peat soils will also continue Sunday.