Blaze continues to consume refuge

Published 3:24 am Monday, June 9, 2008

By Staff
Fire expected to
continue east
Staff Writer
PONZER — Firefighters worked Sunday to establish 25 miles of containment line around a fire that has consumed 31,423 acres in three eastern North Carolina counties in a week. Despite the efforts of a firefighting team that has grown to 210 strong, the fire continued advancing eastward into the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Sunday, and was only 40 percent contained.
Since the fire was ignited June 1 by a lightning strike, the effort to contain and extinguish the blaze is estimated to have cost $637, 686 as of Sunday morning.
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. A State of Emergency is in effect for Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington Counties. Additionally, a state-implemented burn ban applies to Hyde, Tyrrell, Beaufort and Washington Counties.
It’s not the first time some of the firefighters have battled a blaze in the area. Frank Singletary, a forest service ranger from Cumberland County, responded to the Allen Road fire in 1985. It took between two and three weeks to extinguish that fire, Singletary said.
The Allen Road fire burned large areas of federally owned land around Pungo Lake. The Evans Road fire is moving east into the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the vicinity of Lake Phelps, southeast of Pungo Lake.
At least 20 homes were consumed in Washington County by the 1985 blaze, according to Washington County Manager David Peoples. Another fire which burned swaths of Washington County in 1980 also claimed homes, he said. The Evans Road fire is threatening 100 structures and outbuildings, but none had been destroyed as of Sunday night, according to Thompson.
The Evans Road fire, which has been burning for a week, has claimed mostly woodlands, farmland and swamp, but hadn’t progressed toward any structures as of Sunday evening.
What makes the area fertile is the same thing that makes it flammable — soil comprised of decayed vegetation called pocosin fuels.
Singletary was manning a fire line at the southern edge of the blaze with Division Whiskey, as the group has been termed. The fire has been held there at a road, paralleled by a 10-foot-deep irrigation canal between forested land and a planted wheat field. David Walker, supervisor of Division Whiskey, oversaw Sunday a controlled burn of vegetation on the far side of the canal from the wheat field. Walker coordinated 10 men, one bulldozer, a flex-track plow, three engines and a helicopter on his section of the fire line.
Once the fire was started by dropping balls of flammable chemicals from a helicopter, the wind shifted temporarily, carrying smoke and ash across the road and canal and into firefighters’ faces. But Walker was not worried the wheat behind him would catch.
A pumping operation to transport water from nearby Lake Phelps into the fire zone continued Sunday and is expected to become a round-the clock operation by Monday, according to progress reports from the forest service.