Smoke from 21,000 Acre North Carolina Wildfire Causing Air Hazard

May 12, 2011

Smoke from a 21,000-acre fire in Dare County is showing up on NASA satellite images and has traveled as far west as the Raleigh-Durham area, state air quality officials said Tuesday.

The North Carolina Division of Air Quality issued air quality alerts Tuesday for coastal areas between Nag’s Head and Wilmington and is discouraging outdoor exercise anywhere the air appears cloudy or smells of smoke.

“We’ve been getting calls from the Triangle about smoky smells out of the east,” said Tim Mather, a spokesman for the air quality division. “And we’ve measured particulate pollution in the Raleigh area that are higher than normal, although not what we would consider unhealthy.”

NASA satellite pictures taken Monday showed smoke trailing off the coast over the Atlantic Ocean.

Mather says winds have since shifted, blowing more of the smoke toward the state’s interior.

The fire was discovered Thursday about 2 p.m. in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Fire investigators have not been able to verify a cause for the blaze because the area is too hot to safely enter, said Bill Sweet, public information officer for the national incident response team that is coordinating the firefighting effort. Possibilities range from random lightning strikes to arson.

The refuge is largely forested wetlands and bog, which creates a denser amount of smoke than a typical wildfire, Mather said.

Firefighters have been dumping water from aircraft onto the fire and using heavy machinery to clear potential fuel from the surrounding area. More than a dozen fire engines from area companies are also on site.

Sweet said they have the fire about 40 percent contained.

Winds have pushed the fire in the direction of Stumpy Point, a fishing village of about 1,000 residents. Sweet said firefighters spent most of Tuesday trying to protect the town with a back-burn, a technique that uses a separate, controlled fire to combat the original fire. When they meet, both fires go out, Sweet explained.

The burn-out started Monday but had to be abandoned that afternoon when winds shifted and made the effort risky, Sweet said.

U.S. Highway 264 remained closed between the towns of Stumpy Point and Englehard Tuesday.

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