Swamp fire nearly out

Published 10:56 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nearly 50 days after it was ignited by lightning, a fire in the Great Dismal Swamp finally is showing signs that it soon could be beaten.

Just two small underground hot spots remain, firefighters confirmed during a heat-detecting reconnaissance flight on Monday, according to a press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

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Nearly 6,400 acres of the refuge and North Carolina’s adjoining Dismal Swamp State Park have burned since lightning struck Aug. 4. The fire got deep into the swamp’s peat, continuing to smolder even after more than a foot of rain fell in the area during Hurricane Irene.

Firefighters have been focused for weeks on setting up and maintaining water pumps to raise the water level in the burn area. Those pumps and lines had to be disassembled and moved prior to the hurricane and then set out again afterwards — this time in areas where already poor accessibility was exacerbated by felled trees and deep mud, officials said at the time.

After re-establishing the pumps and lines and working to saturate the burning peat along the fire’s eastern boundary, a group of firefighters from Pennsylvania will be leaving the area today, officials said on Tuesday. Taking over will be crews from AmeriCorps and the Job Corps, who will remain on site to monitor the fire and pumping operations.

The two hot areas remaining, according to Fish and Wildlife officials, are east of West Ditch Road and west of Lake Drummond — on both sides of Interior Ditch Road.

According to the press release, the hot spots are both on small, slightly elevated ridges and are surrounded by floodwater. Pumps are being realigned to further raise the water levels in those areas, officials said. Officials continue to estimate that the fire is 90 percent contained.

Since so much of the fire burned below the ground level, many trees’ root systems have been damaged, and firefighters have had to be wary of those trees falling down as they fought the fire nearby, officials stated in earlier press releases.

Continuing safety concerns have led refuge officials to close Lake Drummond and the Railroad Ditch and Corapeake Ditch entrances and to cancel this year’s deer hunt in the refuge. Also, all tours have been canceled until further notice.