June 17, 2011

Smoke continues to plague the Outer Banks, but Stumpy
Point residents are living on the edge of the fire


Few people know Stumpy Point as well as Jasper Hooper, who can claim the mantle of the village’s oldest man.  And Hooper says the 70-square-mile Pains Bay wildfire is the worst he can remember since the 1920s.

“When I was a little boy, there was a wildfire that burned everything down to its roots,” Hooper, 87, said, his blue eyes bright as he chatted this week in the sunny front room of his 200-year-old house.

“It burned big holes in the ground.”

A lightning strike on May 4 ignited the Pains Bay fire, which was first reported May 5, and it was uncomfortably close to the village before firefighters contained it. Flames could be seen across Stumpy Point Bay shooting high above trees in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. 

Located 1 mile west of the village, and 9 miles south of Manns Harbor, the blaze is 85 percent contained as of this week. But it still could threaten the community if it jumps the containment lines, as it has done before.

One Sunday morning, Hooper said, the smoke outside was so thick he couldn’t see his car, which was parked right there at his house. Some days, smoky fog – called super fog -- has smothered U.S. 264 so thoroughly that the road has had to be closed until it cleared.
“It has been bad, but it hasn’t really bothered me,” Hooper said, shrugging. 

Maybe, he joked, that’s because he still likes to smoke – ranging from “nothing to a pack” a day.

Surrounded by the thousands of acres of dense, tangled pocosin, pine and brush in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, Stumpy Point, about 25 miles west of Manteo, has had a long relationship with out-of-control fires. 

Still, Hooper said none, including the Pains Bay fire, have made him feel really threatened – even the one in 1957 when his old friend and neighbor Hildred Golden had to set a backfire to save his property.  That fire consumed more than 75,000 acres.

“I don’t remember too much danger in it,” Hooper said. “Of course, I didn’t worry about it too much.”

But Hooper’s daughter, Colleen Myers, who was cleaning her father’s window blinds on the other side of the room, chimed in that a wildfire in 1971 scared her. At the time, she was living next door when officials warned residents that they might have to set a backfire -- a tactic to take away a wildfire’s fuel. 

“It was probably 5 o'clock in the morning,” she said. “I had my station wagon packed to the gills. I had my sewing machine in the car, all my pictures, and baby books and clothes.” 

At the last minute, the danger was averted, although 30,000 acres were burned.  

Another 30,000 acres burned in 1980. Officials ruled that fire and the 1971 blaze resulted from practice bomb misfires at the nearby Dare County Range, which is owned by the U.S. Department of Defense. Ignited north of the range, both blazes had jumped U.S. 264 and raged towards Manns Harbor before the wind shifted and sent them toward Stumpy Point.  And in August, 2002, a 600-acre brushfire was threatening to spread before firefighters managed to contain it.  

Again, in May, 2003, a 2,600-acre wildfire that began in the bombing range came within a half-mile of Stumpy Point.  In April, 2007, a prescribed burn in the range was declared a wildfire after it became a ground fire in the peat.

Then there was the big trash fire in 1998 at the Dare County construction and demolition landfill near Stumpy Point, and a smaller one there in July, 2000. And in March, 2009, a brush fire at the Dare County shooting range near Stumpy Point resulted in a temporary closure of U.S. 264 because of smoke.

Add those incidents to the prescribed burns conducted within the last 15 years in the Alligator River refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it’s apparent why Hooper and his family take the latest smoky fire in stride. 

“They make it sound like it’s terrible on TV,” his daughter Colleen said. “I’ve been here every Sunday, and I haven’t seen a problem.”

Flames are not the overriding problem anymore in the Pains Bay wildfire. It’s persistent smoldering from spreading underground peat fires that burn down to the water table, slowly baking dead leaves, pine needles and brush on the surface until a spot is rendered combustible and ignites.

Smoke from those numerous hotspots has been taken by the whim of winds, drifting around the Outer Banks like a cloud of poisonous gas – ruining dinner on the outside deck at a restaurant, runs on the beach, strolls along the waterfront, kayaking in the sound. Air quality alerts issued regularly from the state have warned folks to stay indoors if possible and avoid exertion outside.
Despite the smoke, which can appear out of nowhere and quickly become overwhelming, the number of tourists on the Outer Banks does not seem diminished, said Lee Nettles, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. People who are already here want to know its origins, he said, but for the most part, they’re understanding.  And those who had plans to come are, for the most part, still coming.

“It’s a little bit like the inclement weather,” he said. “You have to deal with it.”

Stumpy Point is closest to the source, but its air may be clear when, say, Nags Head’s is choked with smoke. Most days, however, the quiet, 200-resident fishing village does not escape the acrid smell and hazy skies.

“It rolls in with the fog,” John Butler, owner of Stumpy Point Trading Post, said from behind the counter of the village’s only convenience store. “It’ll lift in the late morning. It depends on the wind direction.”

ortheast, north, south and southeast winds carry the smoke away from Stumpy Point. West wind brings some, southwest winds bring it worst. 

North winds push the smoke toward Engelhard, Hatteras, and Ocracoke.

“On the days when there is smoke, it’s not windy enough for us to be out,” said Pete Hardie, a sales associate at REAL Watersports in Waves. “They come inside the shop because it’s so horrible outside.”

Usually the smoke is gone quickly, he said, so it’s hard to judge what impact -- if any -- it’s had on business.

When the fire started, Butler said he could see the flames shooting above the trees across Stumpy Point Bay from his back door. 

“It was pretty daggone impressive at night,” he said. “It would glow red.”

Jay Ross, a commercial fisherman in Stumpy Point who had stopped by to talk with Butler, said that there have been some mornings when he couldn’t see the water from his house, “and I live on the waterfront.”

“Fishermen have to stay in,” he said. “If they can’t get out in the morning, their day is lost.”

Now that the fire is mostly contained --- meaning it is behind fire lines --- the 230 or so firefighters have been working to soak flaring hot spots with “rain birds,” a type of huge sprinkler, said Brian Haines, spokesman for the North Carolina Incident Management Team.
Areas with ground fire, which can go as deep as 8 feet, are being flooded with the pumped water. Up to 165 million gallons a day pumped from canals, the bay and Milltail Creek is flooding areas that have sub-surface burning peat ---there’s about 10,000 acres of ground fire --- and for the sprinklers. 

"They’re literally raising the water table in there,” Haines said, gesturing toward a huge pipe directing brown, foamy water pumped from the muddy canal into the forest.

Elsewhere, firefighters use sprinklers to suppress hot spots, but it’s impossible to go deep into the tangled brush and woods to fight them. 

“The fire is coming this way,” Justin Showalter, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife firefighter from Covington, Va., said as he and another firefighter kept an eye on the sprinklers. “We’ve checked it on this road, and now we’re just trying to hold it here.”

Until there is substantial rain, like a tropical storm, that will drown the peat fires, Haines said, firefighters will continually have to address the flares to keep the fire contained.

“One of the concerns is when you have those shifting winds, it’s literally shifting the fire,” he said, looking at a map. “They’re a little concerned about it jumping to this area.”

He pointed at two sections on the map close to Stumpy Point.

The firefighters’ job is made the more difficult by severe drought conditions being experienced in the state’s coastal counties.

“The fuels are dry to begin with, and stay dry,” said Jeremy Schultz, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Morehead City. “But also, it’s harder when you don’t get any precip(itation) during the fire to quell some of it.”

Normally, Hatteras would have had 23.46 inches of rainfall since January, Schultz said. But this year, so far only 16.94 inches has fallen.

“We’re only getting 72 percent of the rain we normally get,” Schulz said. “It’s definitely significant. You can’t just ignore it.” 

The only blessing may be that winds have overall been a little bit lighter this spring, he said, and temperatures have settled back to the normal of about 80 degrees. But he added that no big tropical soakings were on the horizon.

Dry, combustible material is a hazard even in low-lying, swampy Stumpy Point, Haines said. Most villagers have canals in their side or back yards, but structures that are surrounded by plants or trees, or are built of weathered wood, or even have flammable items like brooms on their porches makes are vulnerable to spreading wildfire.

Stumpy Point, Haines said, would “really benefit” from the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources'  “Firewise” program, which helps vulnerable communities develop proactive fire management strategies.

“It’s not a wall of flames, generally, that burns a house,” he said. “It’s a burning ember.”


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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