Irene vs. the fire

Published 12:58 am Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Smoke lifts into the air from a soaked, but still smoldering, spot in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Hurricane Irene doused most of the fire, but about 30 spots are still smoking.

The lesson for many folks in Hampton Roads is to be careful what you wish for.

Thousands of area residents were hoping for a heavy rain to extinguish the 6,000-acre wildfire in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. But when that heavy rain came in the form of Hurricane Irene, the storm caused deaths, historic flooding and billions of dollars in damage all the way up the East Coast. And it still didn’t put the fire out completely.

The hurricane dumped about 10 to 15 inches of rain on the swamp, which managed to extinguish the large majority of the flames. But a team that flew over the fire on Sunday still spotted about 30 areas of smoke.

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“It’s still burning after all that,” said Catherine Hibbard, an incident information officer. “It will take a few days to get this wrapped up.”

The largest area that’s still smoldering was estimated at about two acres, Hibbard said. Crews were sent into the swamp Monday to continue assessments of the situation.

While the hurricane was dousing the flames, most of the 400-plus firefighters were holed up in Waynesboro. They’re now battling a power outage at the incident command center at the swamp.

On Tuesday, about 50 to 60 people will be in the swamp extinguishing the small spots that are still smoking. Once that’s completed, cleanup operations will be handed back to the refuge.

Even though the fire is still not beat, Hibbard said, the hurricane certainly helped.

“We went from 6,000 acres to 30 spots where they need to attend to,” Hibbard said.

It’s not unusual for a peat wildfire to keep burning through a deluge, she added.

“Our fire management officer predicted this,” Hibbard said. “A peat fire burns deep underground. It takes a lot to put that out.”

At its peak, the fire was the biggest the Great Dismal Swamp had experienced in recorded history.