June 24, 2011 FacebookTwitter More...
UPDATE: Smoke from two mainland wildfires now choking the Outer Banks

BY CATHERINE KOZAK



Now there’s smoke from two fires choking the Outer Banks, and between them, hazy air could be plaguing the barrier islands for months.

In addition to the Pains Bay fire that has been burning in mainland Dare County since a May 4 lightning strike, a wildfire in Pender County, just southwest of Jacksonville in the southern coastal mainland, was ignited Sunday afternoon, June 19, also by lightning, and has grown rapidly.

“The wind flow has been southwest in the last few days and that’s been blowing the smoke across the Crystal Coast up to the Outer Banks,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Cullen at the Newport, N.C., office.

“Unfortunately, this time of the year in the summer, your prevailing winds are southwest.”

Most likely, Cullen said, the thick haze that cloaked Hatteras and the northern Outer Banks Wednesday night and Thursday morning was a soup created by both fires.

Southwest winds carry smoke from the smoldering Pains Bay ground fire to the northern Outer Banks. Typically, north winds bring it to Hatteras and Ocracoke.

At dawn Thursday, visibility was down to about 4 miles in Frisco and 2.5 miles in Kill Devil Hills.  By afternoon, it improved to about 6 miles and 10 miles, respectively.

Air quality alerts were issued by the state for Thursday and Friday – as they have been for weeks now -- warning that conditions could be very unhealthy.

Cullen said that similar conditions can be expected at least into the weekend, when there is chance that a cold front will come through on Saturday. If it does, he said, the smoke plume from the Pender fire would shift to north-northeast, which would take its smoke away from the Outer Banks.

But it’s only a matter of time before the wind shifts back to the southwest, steering the noxious cloud back to the barrier islands.

Brian Haines, spokesman for the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources, said that the Pender County blaze has burned about 18,280 acres so far. Known as the Juniper Road fire, it’s burning in the isolated Holly Shelter Game lands, about 8 miles north of Topsail.

As of Thursday, there was 0 percent containment, Haines said. That means that so far, the fire --- which like the Pains Bay fire is primarily burning deep in the peat soil --- is not being held behind fire lines.

On Wednesday, fire officials reported that the fire, which was initially reported to be about 100 acres, has made a run to the northeast.

Haines said there is also a 13,000-acre wildfire burning in Bladen County in southeast North Carolina. It was about 25 percent contained on Thursday.

Even though the Pains Bay fire was 95 percent contained on Thursday, that doesn’t mean it’s 95 percent out.

Firefighters are working to flood the burning area with water, but the interior of the thick, tangled woods in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is impossible to reach.

Fire officials say that a soaking of at least 6 inches of rain is necessary to extinguish the peat fire, which is burning as deep as 8 inches and creating fire flares on the surface.

Cullen, with the weather service, said that the only rain forecast in the coming days would be from scattered thunderstorms, but no significant rainfall is predicted.

North Carolina’s coastal counties are suffering a severe drought, which is making dangerous conditions for wildfires.

On Wednesday, the state banned all open burning and canceled burn permits in 27 eastern counties.

The National Park Service has also banned open fires – including beach fires – in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information about the North Carolina fires, check out the link on the national interagency website, http://www.inciweb.org/state/34/ .
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 Pains Bay 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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