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Hyde County firefighters in for the long haul

By George Olsen


Hyde County fire likely to be a multiple week event

New Bern, NC – INTRO - Firefighters continue to battle a blaze that started Sunday in Hyde County. Dry and windy conditions have made it difficult. On Tuesday the blaze was affecting about 1700 acres and deemed under control when the fire jumped containment lines and subsequently spread to over 20,000 acres by Thursday, crossing over into neighboring Washington County as well. But conditions on the ground literally will likely mean it will be several weeks before the fire is out. George Olsen has more.

First things first with any fire keep it from spreading and that's what firefighters are doing, trying to use what man has laid down to promote travel to stop the fire from doing just that. Bill Swartley, a spokesman for the N-C Forest Service.

04:54 What our operations personnel are doing right now is determine where the best place is to stop fire using the road system surrounding the fire. We will not be trying to suppress this fire by putting in plowed lines through the woods and pocosin vegetation. We'll instead be working roads that represent a natural firebreak, and we can expand the size of those breaks by clearing out the vegetation on both sides of those roads. That's the best way to fight a fire like this as it continues to move.

The theory is simple let the fire burn until it reaches a point where there's no fuel to feed it and too great a chasm to jump. The remote area where the fire is you can only talk with people at the command post via satellite phone and the current hot, dry conditions make the situation battle enough for emergency workers. But the soil conditions hear the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge pretty much guarantee that short of a drenching rainfall, firefighters will be dealing with a fire of some sort quite possibly into next month.

03:32 The soils are kind of peat in nature. It's just that they are, when they completely dehydrate or lose their water content and they have very little water in them, and that's caused by extended periods of drought or extended periods of time when you receive no rain-fall, the soils de-water, they dry out and they're almost you can almost liken them to charcoal. When they ignite they just slowly combust. You really don't see open flame from them, and what they basically do is create a lot of smoke.

First, firefighters have to control the running fire the fire moving from tree-top to tree-top. It's only then can they determine the extent of what is a below-ground fire, and even then the extent could be a bit of a mystery because all that is burning is not visible to the naked eye.

03:33 When you have a fire underground, and these organic soils, the fire will burn as deep as the soil exists. Some places in the coastal plain organic soil is 6-7 feet down.

If a ground fire isn't as visually spectacular as one burning in the treeline, they have their own unique and somewhat eerie properties, and can produce problem for human health many miles away.

03:33 You might see areas in the top where the ground is glowing, smoldering. It looks like the ground is smoldering. You won't see any active flame, you'll just see a lot of smoldering. If you were to put your hand over it, you can feel the heat from the ground. You don't want to walk in areas like that. It would present a public safety concern because that fire, you have combustion there and pretty extreme temperatures, so from the surface it doesn't look like much other than a bunch of smoke, but problems because when you have many, many hundreds to thousands of acres involved, that smoke can add up to be a substantial nuisance to neighboring communities and if the wind is carrying it and atmospheric conditions prevail to keep the smoke on the ground a great distance away.

On Thursday morning Hyde County officials were warning residents near the fire that smoke from the fire could contain harmful levels of pollutants which could cause coughing and eye, nose, and throat irritation. Ash from the fire had been detected 75 miles away. Once the running fire is contained, fighting the ground fire will involve irrigating ground fire areas after actively moving water from the surrounding resources. But with ground fires, sometimes all you can do is watch them under nature decides to intervene on your behalf.

02:13 In fact we've had fires as recently as four months ago that have lasted 3, 4, 5 weeks, and some of those fires still have residual smoke and we just monitor them because you just can't get them out. You will not be able to put these fires out until you have substantial rainfall.

Bill Swartley is a spokesman for the North Carolina Forest Service. I'm George Olsen.