July 30, 2008

Dismal Swamp Fire Still Risk / Rains Helped Lull Flames, but Dry Heat Could Cause Flare-Up

Nearly 8 inches of rain in the past month has tamped down the wildfire in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and curtailed its vast clouds of windblown smoke. But the fire still burns within the swamp's deep peat soil, a fire official said, and a stretch of hot, dry weather could quickly revive it into as big a hazard and nuisance as ever.

"People in and around the refuge are looking down the barrel of a long, long summer," said John Calabrese, a spokesman for the refuge. "It's going to take a tropical storm or depression with 6 to 8 inches of rain in a short time to put it out."

Tropical Storm Cristobal, which passed offshore last weekend, delivered only scattered showers. The peak of the mid-Atlantic hurricane season is late August and September.

The swamp fire, which started June 9 when some logging equipment caught fire, has burned more than 4,660 acres in the remote heart of the swamp in Suffolk between Lake Drummond and the North Carolina state line. The refuge encompasses 111,000 acres.

The fire burns at a sleepy pace, but it poses unusual challenges for firefighters because it travels deep in the organic soil where, short of a flood, water will not penetrate. The fire can lie quietly for days until it finds an unburned pocket of brush or wood and

erupts into flame.

Firefighters are trying to contain it within a 5,600-acre rectangle of the dense swamp bound by existing logging roads with ditches full of water. In recent weeks the firefighting has consisted largely of pumping thousands of gallons of water from the ditches and the lake into the hot areas and hoping the skies would open up.

For much of June and early July, the fire generated billowing clouds of smoke that rode the shifting winds into the cities of Hampton Roads and the tourist beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, plaguing people with asthma and other respiratory problems.

Five inches of rain scattered during the week of July 6 substantially knocked down the fire and smoke, said Mike Montefusco, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wakefield. Since then, the fire and smoke have ebbed and flowed with periods of rain and sun. As the summer progresses, increasingly humid air tends to produce thunderstorms packing a lot of rain, he said.

Heavy storms on Wednesday night helped firefighters by dumping 2 inches of rain directly on the swamp, Calabrese said. But the same storms produced hundreds of lightning strikes, which may have started spot fires outside the containment lines. "Thunderstorms are really a mixed blessing," he said.

After 47 days, the fire is listed as 95 percent contained.

Any rain helps, Calabrese said, but garden-variety thunderstorms are unlikely to bring the intensive rain it will take to extinguish the fire.

"We need a season-ending tropical system," he said.

Montefusco said the forecast calls for a sunny weekend - ideal for vacationers and the swamp fire as well - with a chance of rain early next week.

Contact Bill Geroux at (757) 498-2820 or [email protected]

MEMO: BREAKING NEWS 7/25/2008 1:29 PM on inRich.com

Originally published by GEROUX; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer.

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