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by Catherine Kozak, Coastal Review Online
PONZER — Ignited 10 days ago, most likely by lightning, a wildfire burning on private land in rural Hyde County is 24% contained, the North Carolina Forest Service announced Tuesday.
But like past wildfires in the region that smoldered for many months, the Ferebee Road fire, as it is known, is deep under the surface, burning down instead of across the landscape.
“We do have forward movement stopped at this time, but it is in organic soils, and we have a ground fire,” Michael Cheek, N.C. Forest Service incident commander, told Coastal Review Tuesday. So far, 1,938 acres have burned, he added.
The fire is situated within the “scar” of the 2008 Evans Road fire, which burned for more than six months and spread to 50,000 acres in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. In 2011, the Pains Bay fire near the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County burned 45,000 acres and lasted for months.
When the Ferebee Road fire was reported on the morning of June 19 by the land manager for Carolina Ranch, a 15,000-acre private site next to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, the pocosin soil, or peat, was already on fire.
“From the get-go,” Cheek said, “it did get into the ground and into the soils.”
Peat fires are especially challenging to extinguish. The risk is that they can burn down to the water table, as much as 8 feet, and continue to spread underground for a long time. As the fire travels, the smoldering soil sucks moisture from trees and brush, rendering forest growth little more than tinder waiting to ignite.
“That potential is always there during these ground fire events,” Cheek said.
For that reason, firefighters are focused on containing the blaze within the private property.
“Right now, we’re moving a lot of water into the area,” Cheek said, including setting up huge sprinklers to control heat along the fire perimeter.
By Tuesday, 85 firefighters, seven of whom are with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the remainder with the Forest Service, were working at the scene, he said.
A pumping operation from New Lake has carried 88 million gallons of water nearly 5 miles to the perimeter of the fire, he explained. Preparations were being made to pump water from Lake Phelps into refuge canals, from where water would be pumped to the other side of the fire.
Smoke impact, depending on wind direction, is assessed just about every day, Cheek said. Fog can combine with smoke, creating a “super fog” that makes it difficult to see, which he said happened two mornings ago. Super fog is especially hazardous on traffic on nearby U.S. 264 and N.C. Highway 45.
“So far, the fire is south enough that it hasn’t affected (U.S.) 64 as far as visibility,” Cheek said.
Fire Service crews also have built containment lines and fuel breaks on the property.
Sequestered carbon released
Pocosin, which means “swamp on a hill,” is peat wetland composed of organic material that decayed very slowly under the wet conditions.
In recent years, peat has been recognized for its value in sequestering carbon, a greenhouse gas associated with climate change.
Carolina Ranch, the private land where the fire is burning, has dedicated 10,000 acres for carbon offset research, among other conservation projects, according to its Facebook page.
“Our mission is to enhance our natural environment for plant and soils research, carbon farming, nature tourism, agro-forestry, and other related ventures,” it said.
In recent years, Pocosin Lakes refuge also has been working on restoring the pocosin soils which have dried out over the years, not only for its value to the climate, but also as wildfire inhibitor.
Peat soil is composed of 50% carbon, and although it covers only 3% of the Earth’s surface, it stores more than twice the carbon of all the planet’s combined forests.
When the pocosin burns, all the carbon it held is released into the atmosphere.