06/13/08 — Local firefighters, rangers among those fighting Pocosin fire

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Local firefighters, rangers among those fighting Pocosin fire

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 13, 2008 1:48 PM

With winds slowly shifting back toward the coast this morning, the smoke from the Pocosin Wildlife Refuge wildfire that has lingered over Goldsboro and Wayne County since Wednesday has mostly dissipated.

"We're not seeing anything like we saw yesterday," said Ron Humble, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh. "We're on the mend, and it should be better today than it was last night and much better tomorrow than it was yesterday."

He explained that over the next seven days, the winds are expected to shift from their current southeasterly direction back toward the more normal southwest and northwest conditions, keeping Wayne County largely smoke-free.

But, state Division of Air Quality spokesman Tom Mather cautioned, "pretty much anyone east of the Triad could experience Code Red or Code Orange conditions (today). It all depends on which way the winds are blowing.

"It's actually looking like the Triad is getting hit the worst this morning. It's almost like a river of smoke up in the sky. It can wind around and it's somehow avoiding the Triangle right now."

And currently in Wayne County, he said, conditions are actually pretty good.

He explained that according to the Goldsoro monitoring station, readings in Wayne County are currently around 11 micrograms per cubic meter of particle pollution -- "a collective measure of all the goop and gunk in the air."

A standard reading is an average of 35 over a 24-hour period.

On Wednesday, readings in Goldsboro reached as high as 200 -- the highest amount the station can read.

"We definitely were in what we call Code Red conditions (Thursday), which is what we call unhealthy air," Mather said.

And in that smoke, he explained, "could be anything."

"Because you've got trees and all kinds of underbrush burning, it could literally be hundreds of different kinds of organic chemicals," he said.

Those organic materials also are the reason for the heavy smell.

Code Orange, the other possibility for surrounding counties today, means the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups -- primarily young children, the elderly, anyone with a health condition and anyone spending a lot of time outdoors.

But crews are actively working to bring the blaze -- which began with a lightning strike earlier this month -- under control, with help from 11 firefighters from Wayne County -- Indian Springs, Nahunta, New Hope and Pikeville volunteer departments, as well as three from Pinewood and one from Mar-Mac who are headed down today. The others are expected to return home Saturday, with Indian Springs likely to be back today.

Wayne County Fire Marshal Bryan Taylor explained that the crews are based in Hyde County, and that most of them -- except for New Hope, which is helping Hyde County firefighters respond to regular calls -- have been working to set and control backfires. Although, he said, when the 40,000-acre wildfire jumped the breaker lines earlier this week, some of them did find themselves battling the blaze tree to tree.

"All of the firefighters who have gone down, have had the wild land fire suppression class, or some training in that area," Taylor said.

Also helping battle the blaze are rangers from the state Forestry Service, including a few from Wayne -- one of whom is down there currently and one who is headed back Saturday.

But as the smoke started blowing west late Wednesday afternoon, those firefighters' work became a little more difficult as rangers in Kinston were forced to ground their fire-suppression aircraft, including three state-owned, single-engine tankers, three federal air tankers, two state helicopters and four National Guard Blackhawk helicopters.

"The reason they're grounded is because of the visibility. We can't even see the end of the runway right here (in Kinston)," regional ranger Cullen Swain said Thursday. "There's nothing we can do about it. We'd love to be up in the air, but it's beyond our control. It's a safety issue."

However, with clearing conditions today, he is hopeful they will be able to return to the air by this afternoon.

Until the smoke rolled in, he explained that the team has been flying steady missions since last week, dropping fire retardant. However, he was hopeful that their inability to fly wouldn't cause too many problems on the ground.

"I think we have been very important as far as supporting them, and this (being grounded) hasn't helped, but I don't think it's hindered fire suppression efforts," he said.

Currently the fire is about 40 percent contained, and said Wayne County ranger Dwight Bryant, without a "major weather event" there's little that can be done to extinguish the blaze.

"The reason it's burning like it is, is because the peat moss is on fire," he said.

He explained that the peat moss -- organic material in the soil -- is so thick and deep that it's hard to extinguish.

"You may put water on it right now and not see any smoke, but the next day when it dries out and heats up, your world can be on fire," he said.

And so, he continued, pretty much the only solution is to completely flood the area and saturate that peat moss.

"It's going to take a lot of water to get this fire out," Bryant said.

Unfortunately, Humble said, there is little chance of a good rain event in the next week, even with a few showers predicted.

"It's extremely doubtful we're going to get a soaker. I don't expect it to have much impact," he said.

And so until that happens, with the western edge of the fire largely under control, firefighters are hoping they will be able to use N.C. 94 -- a north-south road that runs east of the refuge -- and nearby rural roads as control lines, since they can't get bulldozers and other equipment into the swamps where the fire is burning now.

To do that, firefighters are burning the surrounding land ahead of the fire "so that it burns under our terms rather than the terms of nature," Dean McAlister, a spokesman at the incident command center, said.

They don't want the fire to jump N.C. 94, which would take it out of the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge and into more farmland and residential areas.

Just in case, though, emergency management officials in Hyde County are readying residents for potential evacuations and recommended that residents gather important documents, medications and pet supplies in case they have to leave in a hurry.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.