June 10, 2011

Smoke from Pains Bay wildfire is a problem on the Outer Banks

By IRENE NOLAN



Smoke from the Pains Bay wildfire on the Dare County mainland has continued to plague the Outer Banks.

Depending on which way the wind blows, the smoke plume has headed southeast toward Hatteras and Ocracoke or northwest toward the northern Outer Banks.

Last week, smoke conditions required continual air quality alerts for the area north of the Bonner Bridge, where residents reported choking areas of smoke that was thick it blotted out the sun at times.

Last weekend, the smoke blew south toward Hatteras and Ocracoke.  It was smoky but not overwhelming on Saturday morning, June 4, but was so thick and acrid on Sunday over both islands, making it hard to breathe and leaving a deposit of ash on vehicles and other surfaces.

The first of the week, the smoke was again drifting toward the Nags Head area, where it has plagued residents and tourists for most of the week.

By the end of the weekend, it may be back on Hatteras and Ocracoke as the winds shift to the north and northwest.

Firefighters have struggled to contain the wildfire, which was started on May 4 by a lightning strike in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

It is now burning over about 45,000 acres in the refuge and the Dare County Bombing Range, and it continues to threaten the fishing community of Stumpy Point on the mainland.

Several times, the hundreds of personnel involving in fighting the fire have had it pretty well contained, but then the fires, burning underground in peat deposits, have popped up in areas outside the containment lines.

That is what happened last weekend.

On Friday, June 3, the fire was 85 percent contained at 29,000 acres.  It escaped into unburned fuels overnight, and on Saturday, fire crews conducted a “burn-out” of 11,000 acres to remove the unburned fuel between the fire perimeter and the containment lines.
Last night, the fire was again 75 percent contained, with significant burning of organic soils and surface fuels in the interior.

Fire crews were continuing to soak the ground fires and were concentrating their efforts on the north and west perimeters to keep the fire from jumping U.S. 264 and entering  Stumpy Point from the north.

At a meeting with the Stumpy Point community last night to update the fire, David Greathouse, fire behavior analyst with the North Carolina Forest Resources, said the area needs 5.72 inches of rain “to get back where we need to be.”

According to a report in The Outer Banks Sentinel, Greathouse said that the large peat deposits in the area are hindering firefighting.  In the organic peat deposits, the fire burns down into the ground until it reaches the water table. The ground fires tend to spread out as they burn underground and can resurface at considerable distances from the point of origin.

In the current drought conditions, he said, the water table is down 17 inches.

Firefighters are using pumps and sprinkling systems where they can to bring the water table closer to the surface.

A cold front expected to move through the area Sunday, is forecast to bring only isolated showers, though it will shift the wind northwest – away from the northern Outer Banks and back toward Hatteras.

Officials have said that the fire could burn for months until there is enough rain to extinguish the groundfires.

The smoke has hindered drivers on U.S. 64 and 264.  Both are open now, though U.S. 264 has been closed intermittently.  “Super fog,” a mixture of fog and smoke that can cause white-out conditions has occasionally affected the highway.  And drivers on U.S. 64 have had to deal with occasionally thick smoke.

Road conditions are being continually assessed, and information on closures and problems is available 24 hours a day by calling Dare County Central Communications at 252-473-3444 or visiting www.co.dare.nc.us and clinking on road conditions.

Currently 261 personnel are involved in fighting the fire with 11 tractor units, 15 fire engines, and four helicopters.

Updates on the fire are available at least once a day on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website.

The Island Free Press will also be printing daily reports on smoke conditions and air quality alerts for the durations of the fire.  Click on the icon on the Front Page at the top on the right.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Smoke advisories for the area can be found at: www.weather.gov/mhx and more information on air quality is available at www.ncair.org/airaware/forecast/

Additional information on the fire, including announcements, photos, and maps can be found by visiting Inciweb http://www.inciweb.org/incident/2218/ or Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pages/NC-Division-of-Forest-Resources/117366861613343

Live satellite imagery of the smoke plumes be found at http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/goes/east/wfo/mhx/flash-vis.html





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