Irene eyes Virginia

Published 12:08 am Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If Tuesday’s earthquake wasn’t exciting enough, weather thrill-seekers may get some satisfaction this weekend.

Hurricane Irene is bearing down on the East Coast, and the Hampton Roads area appears to be its intended target.

“The Suffolk area and Tidewater area are kind of in the bull’s-eye of possibilities right now,” said Lyle Alexander, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wakefield.

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The hurricane was a Category 1 on Tuesday evening, but was expected to develop quickly into a Category 3. Meteorologists believe it will make landfall in the Carolinas.

Suffolk likely will start seeing effects of the storm on Saturday, Alexander said.

“It will be increasing on Saturday,” he said. “It may reach tropical storm force on Saturday late in the day.”

Alexander said there is potential for significant flooding throughout the area.

For firefighters battling the Great Dismal Swamp wildfire, Irene may become a blessing or a curse.

“We’re watching the hurricane forecast very closely,” said Mark Nelson, public information officer for the incident. “Our first priority is safety of the firefighters and all the staff here at the incident.”

While the heavy rain could help to douse the flames, the wind and its power pose a threat.

“We are concerned about trees falling,” Nelson said. “That adds more fuel to the fire.”

Firefighters will not be in place in the swamp during the hurricane, Nelson said.

“We’re not going to have firefighters out in harm’s way,” he said.

Instead, the fire personnel will stay in their hotels if the storm hits as a Category 2 or lower. If the storm is stronger, the 400 or so firefighters and other crews will move to a more secure location.

After the hurricane has passed, Nelson said, the crews will return to assess the situation.

“The worst-case scenario is we get high winds and very little rain,” Nelson said. “The best-cast scenario is a lot of rain and very little wind.”

Even heavy rains likely won’t extinguish the fire entirely, Nelson said.

“It’s very likely we’re still going to have to continue the pumping operations and continue to flood the swamp,” he said. “A lot of rain will make our job easier, but the job won’t be over.”