Smoke signals scope of blaze

Published 4:22 am Saturday, June 14, 2008

By Staff
Plume from fire brings issuance of a Code Purple
Staff Writer
Firefighters expect to contain the Evans Road fire soon, but not before more acreage is charred, a forestry spokesman said Friday.
The fire had been pushing against its western containment line in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, but winds generally from the west — expected today and in the immediate future — will push the fire northeast across swampy ground until it reaches N.C. Highway 94, said Dean McAlister, a spokesman for the N.C. Division of Forest Resources.
The fire had already burned about 40,000 acres, as of 6 p.m. Friday, and at least 473 people, including some from as far away as Arizona, were working to battle the blaze, according to officials.
Forestry officials hope a small creek will provide a natural firebreak at the southeast quadrant of the fire and N.C. 94 will serve as a firebreak north of the creek, McAlister said. Firefighters conducted backburns in the area Friday, trying to rob the advancing fire of potential fuel, officials said.
The tactic mirrors their use of Evans Road, a dirt lane paralleled by a large ditch, as a firebreak on the fire’s west side.
That firebreak held Friday despite embers blowing across the road and the canal that runs beside it, McAlister said.
The wind also pushed smoke from the fire westward across Washington and the state, prompting the N.C. Division of Water Quality to issue a Code Purple advisory for towns as far from the fire as Rocky Mount. Code Purple is the most-dire warning about air quality the state has ever issued.
Also Friday, state Reps. Arthur Williams from Beaufort County and Tim Spear from Washington County and staff members from the offices of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and state Sen. Marc Basnight toured sections of the fire lines.
Williams wanted to determine if firefighters have everything they need to fight the fire.
While the fire, which is burning in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties, hasn’t reached the areas Williams represents, its impacts have, he said. Burning bans are particularly tough for farmers to deal with, he said.
Thursday, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners declared a limited state of emergency in the county and tightened an existing burning ban to prohibit all outdoor fires.
Spear called the fire’s psychological effect its biggest impact on his constituents.
Several areas in Hyde County have been under evacuation orders as the fire approached standing, ripe wheat fields, where the fire would have the potential to spread rapidly.
No structures have been lost, so far, and about half of the burned land has been inside the wildlife refuge, where fires are a normal and essential part of the life cycle, officials said.
Helping fight the fire on Friday were three state-parks employees — Robert Clark, Alan Hobbs and Charles Perkins. As massive pumps worked to flood the smoldering ground, the three were using hoses to try to protect a dirt road running through the forest. Much of what is burning is organic soil, extremely rich with flammable pocosin fuel. Fire could burn organic soil under a section of road, causing it to collapse, the men said.
Clark, who normally works at Goose Creek State Park east of Washington, said battling the Evans Road fire was less predictable than the controlled burns he usually performs at the park because he was nearly surrounded by the Evans Road fire.
In Beaufort County, volunteer firefighters responded to a brush fire near the intersection of Burbage and Peoples roads in Bath Township about 6:30 p.m. Friday. A firefighter who arrived at the fire requested firefighting apparatus and additional firefighters, according to radio transmissions heard on a scanner.
Details about that fire were not immediately available Friday night.