Evacuations issued for two Hyde County communities

Published 3:49 am Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Staff Writer
For the ninth day, firefighters battled shifting winds, soaring temperatures and lighting strikes in their efforts to contain the Evans Road fire, which as of Tuesday had consumed 40,195 acres in three eastern North Carolina counties. It is now the largest active wildfire in the United States, according to forestry officials.
The 63-square-mile inferno has been 40 percent contained as of Tuesday evening.
Weather conditions pushing the fire eastward prompted Hyde County Emergency Management Coordinator Tony Spencer to re-issue an evacuation order Tuesday evening for Waterway Landing and the upper New Lake Road. Local and mutual-aid fire units, alongside forest service teams were dispatched to perform structure protection, he said.
Extremely smoky conditions have also now set in the entire Ponzer area, greatly reducing visibility there, according to Spencer. The Belhaven Volunteer Fire Department remains open as a sheltering location for any displaced persons.
Winds from the southwest with gusts reaching 20 miles per hour in the afternoon were forecast for Tuesday. That could push the fire farther north and east into the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and closer to inhabited structures north and east of Lake Phelps.
The N.C. Forest Service had 341 people working Tuesday to halt the fire’s advance eastward. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local fire departments from across North Carolina are aiding the forest service. They have been joined in recent days by emergency responders from Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi and from states as far away as Arizona, according to forest service officials.
Without tallying the cost of local and federal cooperating agencies, the forest service has already spent nearly $1.4 million on efforts to contain and extinguish the fire — started June 1 by a lightning strike in Hyde County.
Fire crews worked Tuesday to establish and shore up 20 miles of containment lines along the fire’s northeast perimeter. But thick smoke in the area lowered visibility and impaired working conditions Monday and Tuesday, 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 massive smoke plume from the fire, which was clearly visible from Washington Tuesday afternoon, began to spawn its own weather around 3:30 p.m., when winds also began to come out of the east rather than the west. The smoke column, blown west blanketed a portion of U.S. Highway 64 between Roper and Columbia, according to forest service spokeswoman Laura Prevatte. There have been no road closures, but Prevatte encouraged drivers to use headlights and drive slowly in smoky conditions.
Thompson was on the fire line when the wind began to shift, she said.
The lightning brings the possibility that other fires could be sparked in the area and poses a risk to firefighters, who have been briefed on the weather situation and are prepared to enact safety measures, according to Thompson.
“We’re preparing for the worst but hoping for the best,” she said.
There is also a possibility that thunderstorms with wind gusts pushing 60 miles per hour are headed for eastern North Carolina.
A structure-protection team of about 140 volunteer firefighters is stationed at Mattamuskeet School with 33 fire engines at their disposal should the fire threaten any homes or other buildings. No mandatory evacuations had been enacted as of Tuesday afternoon. No structures have been destroyed and only two heat-related injuries have been reported since June 1, according to Prevatte.
“We’ve been really lucky with this heat that only two people have suffered minor injuries,” she said.