Alligator River/Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
P. O. Box 1969
Manteo, North Carolina 27954

Contact: Bonnie Strawser - 252-473-1131

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News Release

June 29, 2009

Lightning Starts Wildfire at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
By Tom Crews, USFWS.

On Friday evening, June 26, a squall line of storms crossed the region bringing heavy lightning, wind and rain.  Around 5:00 PM, lightening ignited a wildfire on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, approximately seven miles southwest of the Stumpy Point community.  Fortunately, torrential rains followed the front, suddenly extinguishing the blaze at approximately 75 acres.  On Sunday afternoon, June 28, US Fish and Wildlife Service Incident Commander Greg Suszek said, “We got lucky as ‘mother nature’ stopped this one almost as quickly as it was started.  Based on helicopter surveillance and monitoring with an infrared camera for the past two days, we are declaring the fire controlled.”  This is the second wildfire started by lightening at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in the past few weeks. 

Aerial view of fire
Wildfire as seen from the US Fish and Wildlife Service fire control helicopter. Photo by Tom Crews, USFWS.

Shortly after the lightning started on Friday evening, a resident of Stumpy Point Community reported a large smoke column building in the pocosin about seven miles to the southwest.  Firefighters from the North Carolina Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Stumpy Point Volunteer Fire Department responded to the call, but due to the remoteness of the area, they could not immediately pinpoint the fire’s location.  Once the heavy rains cleared off, firefighters saw no sign of a smoke column, although the smell of smoke lingered across the area.  As darkness fell, it was apparent that a fire had occurred in the Highway 264 Low Pocosin Dome, but may have been rained out. 

Aerial vew of fire
View of the fire as the helicopter flew slowly overhead to monitor for hot spots. Photo by Tom Crews, USFWS.

Early on Saturday morning, with two strike teams of flex-tracked tractors standing by, firefighters from the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the North Carolina Forest Service returned to the area to try and locate the fire with the State scout plane and FWS fire control helicopter.  Once the fire was located, scouted and sized up, it was found to have been burning in thick shrub and bog vegetation on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge about two miles north of US Highway 264 near the Parched Corn Bay canal.  The fire was observed to be cold along its perimeter with only one spot still smoking, well within the blackened oval-shaped burned spot, and not a threat for escape.  Fire crews from both agencies patrolled across Hyde, Dare and Tyrell counties with aircraft and vehicles looking for additional lightning-caused fires.   An estimated 2,400 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes had been recorded in the three-county area from this one storm system alone.  No additional fires have been found as yet, however it can take days after a storm for lightning fires to show up. 

Man with helmet on looking out from helicopter.
US Fish and Wildlife Service Firefighter Cory Waters monitoring the fire from the helicopter to locate hot spots. Photo by Tom Crews, USFWS.

US Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Officer Tom Crews noted that the area in which the fire occurred was part of Fire Management Unit 6 of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a huge fire compartment that contains over 11,000 acres of refuge land.   Combined with an equally large portion of Dare County Bombing Range lands, this one area contains over 22,000 acres of remote dense shrub and woodlands.  With no roads or firebreaks, extremely wet boggy soils, and extremely dense fuels, fire operations within this area would be very difficult, dangerous and expensive.  After the fire was declared controlled on Sunday afternoon, Crews stated, “The East 264 Dome Fire caused no damage on the ground, and actually benefited the natural resource values in the area.”

The 264 Low Pocosin Dome area is a North Carolina Natural Heritage Site, rich in natural resources that are dependent upon occasional fire disturbance to maintain a natural balance.  For some time now, biologists and plant ecologists have observed that many of the natural bogs in this area are getting overgrown with thick woody shrubs.  In addition, state and federal land and fire managers with the North Carolina Forest Service, the US Air Force (managers of the Dare County Bombing Range) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. have been concerned about the accumulating critical levels of fuels.  Crews said, “Because the area is too large to prescribe burn, we are dependant on wildfires to reduce built-up fuels.” He added, “Should a future wildfire occur in the area, the current high water table will protect the soils from catastrophic groundfire witnessed on the Evans Road Wildfire last year.  With green vegetation holding down fire behavior, firefighters should be able to hold the fire within compartment boundaries using a minimum suppression forces. 

Man looking out of helicopter window with camera
Cory Waters using an infrared camera to locate active fire on the East 264 Dome wildfire Saturday AM. Photo by Tom Crews, USFWS.

Crews commented, “While I am pleased suppression efforts were not needed for the East 264 Dome Fire, spring fires could very easily and quickly threaten local communities." Land management agencies in Dare and Hyde Counties are scheduled to meet this week in Manteo to begin discussions on the development of “wildfire appropriate management response plans” for several key areas across the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Dare County Bombing Range, Gull Rock Game Lands and private lands.  The 264 Low Pocosin Dome area is just one of the areas that will be open for discussion.  The goal is to reach a strategy consensus for determining future wildfire response in these areas. 

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.