By Russ Lay | Outer Banks Voice on May 15, 2011
Although there is an air quality alert for most of the region Tuesday, parts of the Outer Banks could get some relief if the forecast holds up. The North Carolina Division of Air Quality says winds could send smoke more to the north and northwest.
The division said that while the fire is mostly contained, burning peat in the ground and dead vegetation will continue to produce low-level smoke.
Winds are expected to be from the south at least through Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
The wildfire started after a tree was struck by lightning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported Sunday.
An investigator “concluded that the fire smoldered and later ignited in what appeared to firefighters to be two separate fires,” the service said in a statement.
The fire, which is 19 miles south of Manns Harbor, is 80 percent contained and has consumed more than 25,000 acres.
More than 230 people are fighting the fire, which broke out May 5 near Pains Bay on the border of Dare and Hyde counties on the mainland.
An irrigation system is being used on the northern end of the fire to soak smoldering peat soils, the refuge reported.
Ten miles of U.S. 264 are still closed between Engelhard and Stumpy Point, but no structures are threatened.
Helicopters, water trucks, bulldozers and fire engines are being used to fight the fire.
Meanwhile, Mother Nature, proving she is an equal opportunist, shifted the wind pattern on Saturday with the breeze coming from the south.
For most of the early stages of the fire, wind patterns brought heavy smoke to communities south and west of the blaze, Hyde and Tyrell counties in particular.
Now that the wind has shifted, smoke has been drifting over Dare and Currituck. Reports from Hampton Roads media indicate the smell (but not necessarily the haze) could be detected as far north as Suffolk, Va.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions from the Fish and Wildlife Service:
What should we expect?
Smoke patterns began to change Friday afternoon and will continue changing through the weekend. On Saturday , a warm front moved through from the southwest followed by a cold front, which stalled near the coast.
During the coming week, winds will vary from south,-southeast to south-southwest briefly changing to west-southwest during thunderstorms. Winds will shift with local variations. Higher humidities and a chance of showers and thunderstorms will help extinguish smoldering areas.
Portions of the fire are smoldering and burning in peat. The water table is 8 to 15 inches deep so the fire will expand outward along the water table line once the peat fire reaches the water table.
Where will there be smoke?
Communities north and northeast of the fire will be impacted throughout the week. Smoke settles late at night and early in the morning. Smoke will extend based on the size of the smoke plume and the velocity of the wind. Strong winds push smoke greater distances but also disperse the smoke.
The typical weather pattern for summer months is winds blowing from the southwest. As weather patterns shift, the smoke will also shift, giving periods of reprieve.
How long will it last?
Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to this question. Firefighters are presently irrigating the perimeter of the fire. Plans are to irrigate peat areas within the interior of the fire. However, smoke will linger in the interior of the fire until a sufficient amount of precipitation falls or the smoldering areas are sufficiently irrigated to extinguish the burning peat.
This fire most likely will not approach that of historic fires that blanketed the area for months, but smoke will be present. As time goes forward, smoke will steadily be reduced with precipitation and irrigation.
At least one resident, local photographer Biff Jennings, took the smoke invasion with some good humor.
“Anyone know where we can buy a giant pig?” was his contribution to Facebook.
Cover photo by Skeeter Sawyer