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Shifting Winds Blow Smoke Away From Richmond

June 15, 2008

By Greg Edwards, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

Jun. 15–Smoke from wildfires in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp and farther south in eastern North Carolina will avoid the Richmond area again Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

Winds were out of the southwest in Richmond today, diverting the smoky stench that plagued the metro area on Friday.

Later tonight, winds are expected to turn and come from the west-northwest, which will keep the smoke out of Richmond again tomorrow, said Mike Montefusco of the National Weather Service office in Wakefield.

Regardless of the relatively clearer air in Richmond today, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued a code-orange, air-quality alert for the region. A code-orange alert means air pollution can be unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children; the elderly; and people suffering from asthma, heart disease and lung disease.

The Norfolk-Hampton Roads area caught the smoke from the Dismal Swamp wildfire today, the weather service said.

It issued a dense smoke advisory for Hampton Roads today with the smoke expected to increase in density in Norfolk this evening. People with respiratory ailments were advised to stay indoors as the DEQ’s air-quality alert also applied to the Hampton Roads area.

The wildfire in the Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge, about 12 miles south of Suffolk, is burning in logging debris and in fallen white cedars toppled by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. It was started Monday afternoon when logging equipment caught on fire.

By this afternoon, the Dismal Swamp fire had burned an estimated 1,575 acres, said Catherine Hibbard of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hibbard said 245 firefighters from Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Nature Conservancy and the state of North Carolina are fighting the fire. The battle is being waged from the ground and with bucket-equipped helicopters, which were dipping water from the refuge’s Lake Drummond to dump on the blaze.

Firefighters experienced a setback yesterday, when the fire jumped a line on the fire’s east flank, Hibbard said. It also broke out to the north but was stopped by the helicopters. By this afternoon, the fire was still only 20 percent contained.

Parts of the wildlife refuge have been closed to the public because of the fire.

The prime concern, Hibbard said, is the southeastern part of the park, where the fire threatens North Carolina’s Dismal Swamp State Park. That area has not burned in a long while and there is fear that if fire gets into it could move swiftly, she said.

The annoying and unhealthy smoke aside, the Dismal Swamp fire does have a positive side.

Wildfires have been fought in modern times because of the problems smoke causes for the refuge’s neighbors, and keeping fire out has altered the refuge’s ecology. Fires were once part of the ecological development of the swamp, Hibbard said.

Burning excess fuels will release nutrients and allow the growth of new white cedars in the swamp, she said. Contact Greg Edwards at (804) 649-6390 or gedwards@timesdispatch.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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