Whipping Creek not expected to be repeat of previous fires

By on April 27, 2016

Wildfires are a natural part of coastal N.C.’s ecosystem. (NCFS)

While the Whipping Creek Fire on the Dare/Hyde mainland has grown to nearly 16,000 acres since it started last week, fire officials say they are not concerned that it will smolder in the nutrient-rich peat soil like others have in recent years.

The fire has charred a combination of public and private lands surrounding Long Shoal River after small grassfires were accidentally ignited by mowers working along U.S 264.

Containment was up to 70 percent as of Wednesday afternoon, and full containment is expected by late next week.

Minimal heat was detected on the fire Monday, and helicopter water drops were being used on areas where infrared equipment detected heat blooms. Despite warm, dry and breezy conditions, very little fire growth was expected Tuesday.

One of the big concerns is that the fire could move into what is known as the “264 Low Pocosin,” an area encompassing 20,000 acres northwest of Stumpy Point in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge with very few roads or canals.

The soil is made up of a rich, organic material known as “peat” that can be as much as 4 feet below the surface, and when ignited during extremely dry conditions, can burn and smolder for weeks on end.

“Rainfall during the past two years has fed the water table and the area is wet,” according to Bonnie Strawser, visitor services manager for Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. “Compared to other peatland fires we’ve seen, this one is much less intense.”

Major wildfires over the last decade, such as the Evans Road Fire in 2008 and the Pains Bay Fire in 2011, produced smoke for months that blanketed the region at times. It took a major snowfall to eventually put out the Evans Road fire, and Hurricane Irene to extinguish Pains Bay.

Nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is working to restore as much of the the natural hydrology as possible in some of its pocosin habitat that was extensively altered by ditching and draining.

“These habitats will always have fire, but restoring a more natural water regime in portions of Pocosin Lakes Refuge will help us hold future fires to a shorter duration, meaning less ground fire, less smoke and less cost,” Strawser said.

Strawser said the Whipping Creek Fire has cost about $1 million to battle, with 146 firefighters and fire managers assigned, primarily from the North Carolina Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In comparison, the Evans Road Fire burned for four months and cost taxpayers nearly $19 million.

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