Swamp fire is still smoking

October 6, 2011

The stubborn wildfire in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge began in the usual way, with a bolt out of the blue.

From that spark in Virginia’s Tidewater area on Aug. 4, the blaze has grown into the largest ever at the refuge, burning more than 6,300 acres. It is on pace to be the longest-burning fire since the swamp was designated as a refuge in 1974.

As of Thursday, it had burned for more than two months, even after a hurricane and tropical storm dumped about four months’ worth of rain within weeks.

Refuge manager Chris Lowie watched it with frustration while touring the swamp in a helicopter after Hurricane Irene at the end of August. “I couldn’t believe it was still burning,” he said. “We identified 35 to 40 spots that were still smoking.”

Only the Great Conflagration — which burned from 1923 to 1926 before the swamp became a federal refuge — was bigger.

Swamp fires rarely threaten people and property, but their thick smoke concerns federal health officials. The swamp is within a few miles of downtown Suffolk, and residents of Suffolk and Chesapeake counties who suffer from pulmonary conditions were at risk during sustained periods of poor air quality.

A similar wildfire in North Carolina produced “haze and air pollution far in excess” of national air quality standards, according to a federal report.

During the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge fire in 2008, emergency room visits for asthma, pneumonia and acute bronchitis increased significantly. Risk of heart failure increased in some counties during episodes of high exposure to smoke, compared with other days, according to data cited in the report.

In the early days of the current fire, when it burned brightest, Lowie fielded numerous phone calls from residents. “Citizens of Hampton Roads were . . . saying, ‘When is the fire going to be out?’ ‘I’m tired of the smoke.’ ‘I have asthma.’ ‘I can’t go outside.’ Things like that,” Lowie said.

At the refuge, wildlife died. Large mammals such as bears and otters lumbered away from the flames, but reptiles, including turtles, frogs and the endangered canebrake rattlesnake, perished because they couldn’t flee fast enough.

The fire killed pure stands of Atlantic white cedar, rare trees that provide the habitat that Hessel’s hairstreak butterflies need to survive.

Near the end of August, the fire started to fade. It is now confined to a few hundred acres of the 113,000-acre refuge. About the same time, Hurricane Irene hit Virginia, dropping 12 inches of rain. Tropical Storm Lee came next, pouring nearly three inches of rain. Yet the fire continues.

A wildfire in a damp bog might seem odd, but there’s an explanation. Lowie said a Founding Father, George Washington, started the process of draining the swamps by using ditches to harvest timber.

Lightning fires usually erupt in a substance called peat, dead leaves and vegetation that pile up over thousands of years, Lowie said. There’s not enough oxygen in the soil to breathe life into microbes that decompose it. In dry weather, it becomes flammable.

A peat fire is not like the monster wildfires that engulfed Arizona and Texas this year. It’s more like a monster under your bed, burning four to six feet underground, making it hard for firefighters and storms to reach.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Great Dismal Swamp and other refuges, has spent nearly $12 million fighting the swamp fire. Lowie and his staff of eight fire responders hope a wet winter will snuff it.

Over the past decade, officials have noticed that fires have become more frequent and harder to put out, raising concerns about climate and warming contributing to wildfires.

Lightning strikes the Great Dismal Swamp and other refuges in the Southeastern United States dozens of times a year. Lowie said his fire responders put out two fires in a day in July. But in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011, fires steadily grew, burned hundreds of acres and took weeks to douse.

Fires are such a concern that the Fish and Wildlife Service thins about 420,000 acres a year with controlled burns to reduce them.

The service is relying on the Nature Conservancy, which donated the land that created the refuge, to develop a plan to “make it wetter and good for people and wildlife,” Lowie said.

“Looking into the future, we have to consider climate change. . . . How does it affect us as a large, contiguous forest that historically was wetter than it is now?” he said.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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