New Bern, NC – This week, firefighters with the US Forest Service, North Carolina Forest Service and other agencies have been working to put out a wildfire that has consumed more than 21,000 acres between New Bern and Havelock. Almost a week into firefighting efforts, the Croatan National Forest wildfire is 60 percent contained and crew members will spend the weekend working to keep the fire contained. The Croatan wildfire started as a 1,500 acre prescribed burn that accidentally crossed containment lines on Sunday, June 17th. US Forest Service Public Information Officer Don Simon
" so they were doing some prescribed burning on the national forest, everything was good. However, with any fire, you'll have punky logs, logs that will catch fire and they'll kind of burn for a while and generally, they're not an issue if they stay within containment lines. We had one on this prescribed fire we started last week and they were monitoring it and everything was good it burned itself down and it looked fine, but evidentially there was a punky log or something, it sat there quietly smoldering no one noticed and one day the weather conditions were right and it jumped up and started to burn some unburned material and it jumped the fire line they established for that prescription."
Prescribed burns are thought to be an effective way of restoring the health of a forest by eliminating an overabundance of leaf litter and small underbrush. Before a prescribed fire can take place, though, certain requirements must be met.
"So they look at the weather, they look at the things if a day comes along, and they say hey we're in prescription, they will go out and burn an area. "
Smoke and ash from the Croatan wildfire started concerning residents in surrounding counties early this week. The dense smoke prompted the closure of Catfish Lake Road in Havelock, portions of NC-58 in Jones County, and affected visibility on portions of Highway 17 and 70. Some are concerned about what effect the smoke will have on tourism and wildlife, including Congressman Walter B Jones. On late-Tuesday, he called for a federal investigation looking into the wildfire.
"When I learned that the prescribed burn, which was only supposed to be 1,500 acres expanded and was expanding to almost 21,000 acres, I wanted to know how to the US Park Service, why did you make this decision to do the burn at this time. And then you've got the local units, state units, and federal units and the Marine Corps trying to contain this fire so you're talking about thousands of dollars. I want to know how much money this cost."
Forest Officials say the wildfire has cost about 300-thousand dollars, so far -- and became uncontrollable Sunday after a single hotspot flair-up.
Summer wildfires in eastern North Carolina are very common. Last spring, a lightning strike ignited the Pains Bay Wildfire in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County that consumed more than 45,000 acres. Also, in 2011, the Juniper Road wildfire burned more than 31,000 acres in Onslow and Pender counties. And the Croatan has had its share of wildfires, too. In August of 2009, a wildfire in the Croatan National Forest burned close to 3,000 acres. The Fish Day Fire of 1994 was a big one. It burned 24,600 acres. It remains the largest wildfire to burn in the Croatan National Forest. Most wildfires occur in areas where the vegetation is thick, making it impossible for crews to get their trucks and equipment safely to the blaze. This is the case for the current wildfire. Since it's burning in wilderness area, far from homes and commercial structures, 10,000 acres of a containment fire line was intentionally set on Monday.
"we are using what's called indirect. We are establishing a defendable line, we start back fires on that line burning back into the main fire with the idea to take away fuels. Once the fuel is gone, the fire will start to burn itself down."
By Tuesday of this week, Simon says the containment lines were fully in place, leaving over 21,000 acres of charred forest. As a result of the indirect burning, thick smoke spread across coastal Carolina triggering a Code Red air quality alert in Craven, Jones, and Pamlico counties. Public Information Officer with the North Carolina Division of Air Quality Don Mather says Code Red conditions mean dangerous levels of particle pollution exists.
"The fine particles the reason we're most concerned about them is that they will penetrate very deeply into your lungs and actually be absorbed into your blood stream. To strain them out, you need to have a high quality mask. Those paper masks that you can get at the drug store it'll take out some of that, but it's not going to clean the air completely. "
Half way through the week, Beaufort, Carteret and Hyde counties were listed under Code Orange air quality Conditions which poses a risk to unhealthy or sensitive groups. Within 5 miles of the blaze, Code Purple conditions, the highest alert level, were measured on Wednesday. That means smoke is very unhealthy and hazardous for all individuals.
"we are advising people in the general vicinity of the fire which is very unhealthy. And the Code Red area extends northward up the Pamlico Sound and down into the northern part of Carteret County and eastern Jones County."
By late Wednesday, the winds shifted and the Code Purple alert expired. On Thursday, the focus of firefighting efforts switched from containment to extinguishing hot spots still smoldering in peat soil. Pumps were brought in and hot areas were flooded to put out ground fires. US Forest Service Public Information Officer Don Simon.
"we do have some ground fire, it's not extensive. It's a small percentage of the operation, as far as what's out there. However, they do put up a lot of smoke and I know that's a concern for the public."
The Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study in 2011 that found that smoke from the Evans Road wildfire in 2008 lead to an increase in emergency room visits for respiratory and cardiovascular patients. The blaze consumed over 40 thousand acres of land in Washington, Tyrrell and Hyde Counties. The fuel for the wildfire was made up from decayed vegetable matter, also known as peat. According to Science Daily dot com, the smoke from the 2008 Evens Road peat fire caused an increase in emergency room department visits for problems related to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, and bronchitis. In addition, the study found a 37 percent increase in emergency room visits for people with symptoms of heart failure who were exposed to three days of dense smoke, and for the following five days after exposure. A small portion of peat is currently burning in the Croatan National Forest.
This week, we contacted several area health departments to find out how many people sought treatment for similar symptoms. As of mid-week, the Jones County, Pamlico County, and Craven County Health Departments did not receive any patients with reactions to the smoke. However, at Carolina East Medical Center in New Bern, Director of Public Relations Meghan McGarvey says 34 patients as of Thursday morning sought emergency room treatment for respiratory ailments. However, she could not if the visit was because of the smoke.
Wildfires not only produce unhealthy smoke, they also pose a threat to wildlife, they can consume large amounts of forest, and take out buildings and homes in its path. Fortunately, that's not the case with the Croatan fire.
Federal investigators will begin examining the cause of the blaze as soon as it's put out. Congressman Walter B Jones says taxpayers should know how the Croatan wildfire started.
There are many variables that investigators will confirm in determining the cause of the wildfire. One of those factors is wind speed. According to North Carolina Forest Service Forester Walter Powell, a moderate breeze can potentially spell danger.
"anything over 15 mph is certainly a concern."
And according to National Weather Service forecaster Chris Collins, conditions for a wildfire this past weekend were favorable.
"It looks like Saturday and Sunday the winds were generally out of the northeast at 10 to 15 miles per hour."
It's also been dry with no major rain in sight, a fact that may hamper putting out the Croatan wildfire. It is currently 60 percent contained but smoke still continues to prompt air quality alerts and at times, poor visibility on some roads near the fire. Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.