Vast Peat Fire May Burn for Months in North Carolina

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
June 13, 2008
About 450 firefighters are battling a 40,000-acre (16,000-hectare) blaze in northeastern North Carolina that could burn for months unless the drought-stricken region gets a downpour.

The fire, which was sparked by a lightning strike on June 1, is currently the largest active wildfire in the United States.

Containing and extinguishing the fire is posing a unique challenge, because it is burning in highly flammable peatland.

Peat is partially decomposed plant matter formed in wetlands that can be harvested as fuel. It can be the first step in the formation of coal, a process that takes millions of years.

North Carolina's coastal plain region has about 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of peat that can be up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) thick in some places.

In Washington, Hyde, and Tyrrell counties, where the fire is raging, more than a foot of peat has burned in some places, said Gary Mease, a state forestry division firefighter from Hayesville, North Carolina.

"Think of it as one giant charcoal briquette," Mease said. "It will ignite and [the fire will] sink into the soil."

This means that firefighters face an unusual danger, because the fire can travel underground and suddenly blaze up behind them.

"These fires don't go away," Mease said. "It sits there and smolders [underground], creeps around, skunks around, until it gets the right conditions to go to the surface."

For now the fire is about 40 percent contained, said Brian Haines, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources. Crews hope to have the blaze fully contained within the next couple of weeks.

Frightened Animals

Much of the wildfire is currently within the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, home to several endangered species, including about 130 red wolves and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

(Read more about endangered red wolves being introduced to North Carolina.)

Bonnie Strawser, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said officials don't think the animals there will be seriously affected.

"The wildlife will be fine," Strawser said. "Most of them smell the smoke and feel the heat and move out of the way."

But firefighters are encountering a few frightened animals as they battle the blaze.

Firefighter Mease said one worker had seen 14 black bears, and others have crossed paths with cottonmouth moccasins and rattlesnakes. Fortunately the only injuries so far have been bee stings and poison ivy, he said.

Hope for a Storm

Haines, of the Division of Forest Resources, added that the giant fire has sent a plume of smoke more than 45,000 feet (13,700 meters) into the atmosphere.

"There's such a great amount of heat produced by the fire. When it reaches a certain height, it actually creates its own weather conditions and can create lightning," he said.

(See a related photo of lightning lacing the plumes of ash during a May 3, 2008, eruption of a volcano in Chile.)

Firefighters are using bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment to build firebreaks and are drawing water from private agricultural canals and shallow lakes, he said.

But only a heavy rainfall such as what would accompany a tropical storm or hurricane will provide enough water to completely extinguish the blaze.

"It's not that we want the damage from a strong tropical storm," Haines said. "But we could use the rain."

Meanwhile, firefighters about 80 miles (128 kilometers) away in southern Virginia are battling a smaller fire in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Catherine Hibbard, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the blaze started when logging equipment caught fire on Monday.

Loggers had been removing white cedar trees that had been knocked down by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

Hibbard said the fire has not been contained and now covers about 1,000 acres (405 hectares) on the North Carolina-Virginia border.

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