Vast Peat Fire May Burn for Months in North Carolina

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.

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