Fire frustrates firefighters

Published 4:08 am Friday, June 13, 2008

By Staff
Commissioners declare a state of emergency, expand ban on burning
Staff Writer
Half the personnel fighting the 40,000-acre Evans Road fire believe there is a chance the blaze will reach Beaufort County by late today or early Saturday morning, according to Beaufort County Emergency Management Coordinator John Pack.
The same shifting winds that blew smoke through the county Wednesday and Thursday have the potential to bring the fire farther west, Pack told the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners at an emergency meeting Thursday morning.
Beaufort County has neither the personnel nor the equipment necessary to fight a wildfire if one were to ignite within its borders, according to Pack. With 87 percent of the N.C. Forest Service’s resources fighting the fire in Washington, Tyrrell and Hyde counties, Pack said, Beaufort County is left to share with Martin County a lone ranger with the Forest Service operating a single dozer and a single plow.
The county is also low on volunteer firefighters — the most that could be brought to bear on a fire at the moment would be 16, Pack said. And those firefighters do not have the lighter turnout gear needed to safely fight a wildfire without overheating, he said. Turnout gear worn to fight structure fires is much heavier, he said.
Pack relayed the situation to commissioners Thursday in hopes they would declare a limited state of emergency for the county, which would allow commissioners to appeal for additional emergency resources from outside the county. The declaration also extends a regional burning ban issued by Gov. Mike Easley to burning within 100 feet of a residential structure.
Available firefighting resources will be reorganized into tactical-strike teams in coming days, Pack said. Their priorities will be to first protect people, then to protect structures, he said. With ripe wheat in the fields — an abundant source of fuel for possible fires — Pack said the county simply does not have the resources to combat a field fire if one starts. Forestry firefighters have plans to burn at least 2,000 acres of wheat, a move that will help contain the fire but could increase the smoke west of the fire by 20 percent, Pack said.
The wind shift that occurred Wednesday allowed firefighters to perform backburning operations on the northeast perimeter of the fire, the direction in which the fire has been running since it was ignited by lightning June 1. That shift also began pushing the fire back on itself and to the west, where firefighters worked Thursday to shore up containment lines along Evans Road, for which the blaze has been named.
The state-of-emergency declaration also gives Pack the authority to issue evacuation orders for communities in western Beaufort County. That will happen if the fire jumps Evans Road and continues to spread west toward Belhaven and Pantego, Pack said. At least 21 spot fires have already been ignited west of Evans Road, but forestry officials were able to quickly extinguish them, Pack said
Because the surface fire is only one element of the inferno, residents separated by water from the fire are not necessarily safe, Pack said. Once the surface fire burns away, decayed vegetation that makes up a large part of the soil in the area can burn underground for weeks or months.