Firefighters fill Washington, Plymouth motels

Published 3:34 am Tuesday, June 10, 2008

By Staff
Area motels to Summer Festival attendants: No vacancy
Staff Writer
After a long day working in intense heat and dense smoke, firefighters combatting the Evans Road fire go to area motels to shower, enjoy air conditioning and grab some sleep before heading out again at the crack of dawn.
But their sheer numbers — 254 as of noon Monday, with more on the way — mean that other folks trying to book a room as Father’s Day and the Washington Summer Festival approach could be out of luck.
Most of the firefighters are clustered at large motels in Washington or Plymouth.
Gill’s motel has 39 rooms filled with firefighters. And rooms at other establishments are filled, too, either by firefighters or by travelers displaced from other establishments by firefighters.
Washington will host its annual Summer Festival this weekend. The event is expected to draw a crowd of close to 30,000.
The Washington/Beaufort County chamber of commerce is recommending that travelers who find no room at the inn at Washington motels try local bed and breakfasts, or head to Greenville or Williamston, said Assistant Director Ann Crumpler.
Organizers of the new Washington Triathlon, which will be held Saturday, had already reserved a block of rooms for the event, Crumpler said.
Existing reservations will be honored but new reservations are tough to get, said Tammie Maye, front desk manager at the Comfort Inn in Washington.
The Comfort Inn has more than 40 firefighters, Maye said.
Hotel managers said no special accommodations have to be made for the firefighters, but that coffee and other breakfast items tend to be put out a little earlier, because the firefighters leave.
Motel rooms are paid for using per-diem rates that apply to all state employees, though the money is handled centrally, said Bill Swartley, the forest service’s chief spokesman on scene in Hyde County.
Firefighters will likely be in the area for weeks, trying to make sure that the fire, which is largely underground, is fully extinguished.
In the long term, the costs of fighting the fire — which include lodging — will be split between the state and federal governments, said N.C. Division of Forestry liaison officer Larry Such. The split will likely be based on the proportion of state to federal land burned by the fire.
And a chunk of that cash will go to local governments, many of which charge occupancy taxes, designed to fund programs to draw visitors. Local taxes range from 3 to 6 percent of room rates and are often split with local tourism authorities. In the fiscal year that ran from 2005 to 2006 — the most recent year for which data is available — Hyde County took in more than $355,000 and kept more than $35,000, while the City of Washington took in more than $235,000 and kept over $7,000.
Hyde school housing firefighters school
More on the wayto help contain blaze
Staff Writer
SWAN QUARTER — Students at Mattamuskeet High School have some company as they finish their end-of-year testing — a gymnasium full of firefighters from all over North Carolina.
The school is being used as a staging area for 140 firefighters from 25 volunteer fire departments that have responded to the Evans Road fire burning in Washington, Hyde and Tyrrell counties. The firefighters have been brought to Hyde County to relieve local firefighters on the fire line and to provide structure protection if the fire should continue advancing east toward inhabited buildings.
Some of the firefighters staged there had a harrowing journey to lend a helping hand to eastern North Carolina. One crew from Nashville road a fire engine two and a half hours without air conditioning Monday, which sported temperatures near 100 degrees.
The school’s gymnasium floor is lined with cots, on which the firefighters can catch some sleep between shifts on the fire line. The N.C. Baptist Men, the organization operating the “camp,” is also providing firefighters with three meals a day and movie screenings.
But, even when asleep or at play, the firefighters are trained to be ready for dispatch within three minutes, Prevatte said. The firefighters and the 33 fire engines and trucks they brought with them are on standby to respond if the wildfire jumps any one of several predetermined “trigger points,” she said.
When deployed, those stationed at Mattamuskeet School will not be in the field alone. Firefighters from Washington, Beaufort, Tyrrell and Washington counties had been joined by at least 254 members of the N.C. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as of mid-day Monday. Support personnel have also responded from Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina and more firefighters are arriving daily, according to Bill Swartley, the state forest service’s chief spokesman on scene in Hyde County. North Carolina is a member of the Southeast Compact, a league of states whose forestry services aid each other in responding to large incidents.
The fire, which was ignited June 1 by a lightning strike, had burned 32,556 acres in Washington, Tyrrell and Hyde counties and was 40 percent contained as of Monday. Winds out of the west continue to push the fire and its smoke column n to the east into the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife refuge. More than half the acreage burned is federal land within the refuge, parts of which are closed to the public for safety reasons.
A pumping operation to transport water from Lake Phelps to the northeast perimeter of the fire is underway and running around the clock, Swartley said. That work is aimed at stopping the fire from progressing further east by wetting the ground in front of it. Mechanical pumps — some that can move 6,000 gallons per minute — are dumping lake water into canals in the area.
Swartley doesn’t know when that will be. Ground fires in the area often smolder for weeks or months.