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 1, 2009

Federal, State and Local Firefighters Join Forces to Fight Fire With Fire on the SW Mashoes Road Wildfire

On Saturday, May 30 at 1:00 AM, the Dare County Sheriff's Department discovered a fire burning between Manns Harbor and Mashoes after some very intense lightning storms had passed through the area. Firefighters from the North Carolina Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Manns Harbor Volunteer Fire Department responded to the call. The Incident Command Team was led by Refuge Fire Control Officer Donnie Harris who began suppression efforts using a containment strategy with indirect attack- meaning they set backfires along firebreaks and burned out the interior areas using aerial ignition. The 560-acre fire was declared contained at 6:00 pm on Saturday.

Once the fire was scouted and sized up, it was described as burning in thick marsh and shrub vegetation just north of the Wildlife Boat Ramp off Mashoes Road on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The fire began spreading in thick sawgrass at a fairly steady rate toward the Boat Ramp Road in spite of the brief rain showers that had passed through. Attempts to start a burnout fire along Boat Ramp Road failed, because the grass was too wet to ignite with drip torches. At that point, the fire was burning intensely enough to dry out the grass ahead of itself.

The Manns Harbor VFD was assigned perimeter protection along Mashoes Road to keep the fire from crossing and threatening Manns Harbor to the South. Their efforts succeeded, and the fire was held in check until morning. Incident Commander Harris decided the safest and most cost-effective method to suppress the fire was to contain it between Boat Ramp Road, Mashoes Road and the Ed Sawyer Fire Break to the north and the shoreline of East Lake on the west side. A FWS contract helicopter was brought in to assist with burning out the fuels within the block to avoid the need for taking tractors into this boggy and thick area to fight the fire face to face.

Some backfires were lit using ground crews. However, most of the containment burns were set using the helicopter and a "ping-pong ball" machine. This aerial ignition device drops small plastic spheres that ignite the vegetation on the ground. With these methods, the firefighters were successful in burning the vegetation out with minimum damage to the larger trees.

The smoke plume put up by this burnout operation was visible for miles. By mid-afternoon most of the SW Mashoes Road Wildfire was in the process of burning out and by late afternoon, the containment lines were being mopped up by engines from the USFWS and NCFS. The Manns Harbor VFD was released to stand by as a contingency resource.

“The response to the Southwest Mashoes Road Wildfire is a classic example of interagency partners working closely to make an appropriate management response to stop a wildfire that could have turned into another Evans Road Fire," commented Deputy Refuge Manager Scott Lanier, referring to the 42,000-acre wildfire that occurred last summer over in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington Counties. “Fortunately for us, the fire occurred within an area that had a combination of natural and man-made firebreaks, including the Ed Sawyer firebreak, an old road that is kept maintained by firefighters from the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Also, the area has never been drained for agriculture or forestry operations, so deep groundfire was not a problem this time.” Lanier, who flew the fire on Sunday, was impressed at the biological and hazard fuels benefits achieved by the wildfire response.

"By burning out the fuels to suppress this fire instead of risking personnel and equipment in the boggy ground, we saved a lot of wear and tear and damage to our equipment while keeping our firefighters safe. We already had plans to control burn this area, which would have cost us over $10,000. So, by fighting this fire with fire, we achieved the natural resource benefits of a prescribed burn while saving tens of thousands of dollars on fire suppression costs,” Lanier added. A typical 100-acre fire in inaccessible terrain such as this can cost $50,000 or more when fought using direct attack suppression strategies.

On Monday, Lanier commented, “The successful burnout of the Southwest Mashoes Road Wildfire gives us the added benefit of an excellent firebreak between Manns Harbor and Mashoes for the next year or two. Our firefighters are taking full advantage of this opportunity today by conducting a controlled burn in the adjacent burn unit. Their goal will be to burn out the fuels in the area- creating a firebreak from the homes on the west side of Mashoes Community south to the location of Saturday’s wildfire. If all goes well, by the day’s end, we will have greatly reduced the fire-carrying fuels in this area that has not burned since the last wildfire decades ago. This will achieve our goal of creating safer conditions for our neighbors and improving the quality of wildlife habitat in fire-dependent pocosin and marsh ecosystems of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.”

Aerial view of mashoes road with a giant smoke plume creating a cloud of smoke in the sky
Aerial view of smoke plume of the Southwest Mashoes Road Wildfire as seen on Saturday. Note Manns Harbor in the background of the photo. Photo Credit: USFWS, Cory Waters.

A canal, bushes, and trees in the foreground - a huge pillar of smoke in the background.
Fire in the pocosins - Photo Credit: USFWS, Donnie Harris.

Aerial view of fire patches spread throughout grass and trees - lots of smoke
Burnout along Boatramp Road - Photo Credit: USFWS, Tom Crews.