N.C. wildfire triggers state of emergency

The wildfire that started in a North Carolina wildlife refuge on Thursday spread towards this grove of trees Thursday in Hyde County. Chris Curry / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

North Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency Friday as firefighters worked to contain a massive wildfire at a federal wildlife refuge that spread smoke into Virginia.

Officials hoped lighter winds would help them control the blaze that has burned 28,985 acres — roughly 50 square miles — in and around the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, about 70 miles south of Norfolk, Va.

Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency in three counties to bring firefighters from multiple agencies under a single authority. He warned that roads — including U.S. 64, U.S. 264 and three state routes — could be obscured by smoke.

The fire was only 30 percent contained Friday morning. No injuries or structure damage were reported. Authorities urged the evacuation of about 80 homes.

“Anytime the winds go lighter, that makes a vast improvement,” said Dennis Wahlers, a spokesman for the North Carolina Forest Service.

Smoke drifted as far north as Richmond, Va., and clogged filters on two air monitoring stations a few dozen miles west of the fire, said state Division of Air Quality spokesman Tom Mather.

"You can't really see it. You can smell it," said Sonia Mark, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Wakefield, Va., more than 80 miles away.

Officials said no roads had been closed, although access to the wildlife refuge was limited. Several school systems opened late Friday because of low visibility. Two temporary shelters were available for evacuees.

The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for the region Friday, with temperatures forecast to reach the high 90s.

"Once it starts warming up, the smoke will start lifting up and start dispersing a whole lot better," Wahlers said.

Fire officials in South Carolina have been battling 10 to 15 small wildfires daily, slightly above normal for this time of year, said state Forestry Commission fire chief Paul Watts.

He said high temperatures can be worrisome because of the rising drought problems. “If we have an occurrence it makes it extremely tough on our firefighters to fight fire in 100-degree temperatures,” he said.