Officials working overtime to fight two-state fire

Published 10:10 am Friday, August 12, 2011

By Tracy Agnew/Suffolk News-Herald

Firefighters battling the blaze at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge work 14 days in a row, for a maximum of 16 hours a day, before they get a break.

But the long hours aren’t stopping them from doing everything they can to stop the progression of the fire, which had grown to more than 5,700 acres by Thursday morning.

Nearly 160 people from all over the country have arrived in the city in recent days to battle the conflagration, which now has grown larger than the 2008 South One fire, which scorched 5,000 acres, mostly in the same area as the current fire.

Most of those firefighters are scattered in hotels around the city, wherever rooms were available when they arrived.

Most also work during the daylight, but there is a night shift that works by helmet lamps to ensure everything stays under control.

On Thursday, the firefighters were reinforcing fire containment lines, preparing for controlled burns to eliminate fuel and setting up 16 high-volume pumps to suck water from Lake Drummond and flood the refuge’s canals.

“It’s a big mangled mess,” said Kyle Smith, who works for the U.S. Forest Service. That’s just one of the many agencies fighting the fire, which also include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Forestry, U.S. National Park Service and more. The cities of Suffolk and Chesapeake also are providing fire and rescue support when needed.

The fire was reported on Aug. 4, when a plane flying overhead spotted the smoke. The cause of the fire is thought to be a lightning strike, which could have occurred up to 10 days before the fire was reported.

The blaze has since spread into Dismal Swamp State Park in North Carolina.

Massive amounts of smoke have affected residents all over Hampton Roads and northeastern North Carolina. The safety of residents and firefighters is the top priority, refuge manager Chris Lowie said.

He said he knows the public is concerned about the safety of their homes, but the current fire perimeter is more than two miles from houses on Desert Road.

That may not sound like a lot, he acknowledged, but “It’s got to go through a lot of thick forest” before it reaches them, he said.

Besides the buildings on Desert Road, the next closest homes are about five miles away from the fire, Lowie added.

Refuge officials also are encouraging citizens to be cautious drivers, particularly on White Marsh and Desert roads, because there is a lot of heavy equipment going up and down the narrow rural roads, many times being driven by people who are not from this area.