October 11, 2008

The Great Dismal Swamp Fire Burned for 4 Months. It’s Finally Out.

The number of acres destroyed by the fire - the largest area burned in several decades. Officials estimate the expense of fighting the months-long fire could exceed $11 million. By Kristin Davis

The Virginian-Pilot


It wasn't the Great Conflagration, b ut the fire that ignited in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge this spring was the costliest and one of the longest-burning in state history.

Now it's out.

The fire scorched thousands of acres, occupied hundreds of firefighters, devoured millions of dollars, and released who-knows- how-much smoke across Hampton Roads and parts of North Carolina. The firefighters tried all manner of tactics to contain it - clearing ditches, tapping into Lake Drummond - but nature closed the deal.

A coastal storm in late September followed by rainy days and cloudy conditions helped extinguish the fire , refuge manager Chris Lowie said in a news release Friday.

In the end, 4,884 acres burned, the most in recent history but far short of the Great Conflagration that burned from 1923 to 1926. Firefighting costs may exceed $11 million.

Refuge fly overs last week and this week showed no flames and no smoke. The smoke this summer had permeated Hampton Roads air at times and was noticed as far away as Richmond, Northern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, Lowie said.

"I feel good. Relieved," he said Friday. The fire has consumed Lowie's days since its June 9 start - eight months after he first came to the refuge.

Logging equipment reportedly sparked the fire as work ended on a multiyear clearing project to restore Atlantic white cedar trees. Much of the restoration area - 780 of 1,110 acres - burned, Lowie said. Some of the trees survived , and seedlings have popped up in some places.

Refuge staff has met with soil, hydrology and Atlantic white cedar experts to try to move forward with restoration, Lowie said. The refuge has applied for funds for that work.

"Hopefully we'll get it, purchase seed-lings and plant those in areas where we're not getting natural regeneration," he said. "We'll try to restore the swamp and rehabilitate what's been burned."

A Virginia Department of Forestry investigation into the fire is still open, Lowie said. The refuge will be doing its own review.

"Obviously, there are going to be lessons to learn," he said. "This was the largest fire in refuge history. We're just starting to wrap our heads around that."

Kristin Davis, (757) 222-5555,

[email protected]

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