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A Talk on the Wild Side.

5 Key Moments of the Lateral West Fire

While the Lateral West Fire at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge didn’t quite break the record for longest burning fire in Virginia history, the fire was destructive and costly: 

The fire, which burned for 111 days, consumed more than 6,500 acres and cost more than $12.5 million to suppress.

We've put together a timeline of the fire, highlighting the 5 key moments from the devastating blaze. The Great Dismal Swamp NWR continues to recover from the fire. You can follow their ongoing recovery efforts at their new Facebook Page. 

Fire plumeCredit: Greg Sanders/USFWS

August 4 - 9, 2011: Lightning Strikes

In the earliest days of the fire, two lightning strikes were reported on the refuge.  These lightening strikes began the 111 day burn.

Early estimates said the fires were small – about 15 acres for the larger and a single tree fire for the smaller.To contain the fire, refuge staff used helicopters and bulldozers but the blaze continued and the fire grew.

Smoke in the SkyCredit: Greg Sanders/USFWS

By August 8, the two fires were one large fire consuming more than 2,500 acres.  Firefighters were hampered by high temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds that sent the fire across some firebreaks.

Rain was scarce – July and August were some of the driest in years.

Chopper dumping waterCredit: Allan Barker/USFWS 

August 19, 2011: Calling for Backup

At the height of the fire, nearly 500 pairs of boots were on the ground to stop the blaze. They were armed with 40 high volume pumps, 40 pressure pumps, 12 miles of 6-12” pipes and six miles of hose.

As some of you may have read, we chronicled the experience of Americorps volunteers who fought the fire in an earlier post on the Open Spaces Blog.  

Fire Fighter reflection in truck mirrorCredit: Allan Barker/USFWS 

August 30, 2011: A Foot of Rain, but no Relief

Hurricane Irene dumped 10-12 inches of water on the area in a 24 hour span putting out some of the fire. The sheer volume of rain created another problem, though: the last remaining hot spots were harder to get to because of flooded roads and fallen trees. In those spots, the fire burned on. 

September 30th: Contained?

It was determined the fire was 100% contained as of September 30th, but contained doesn’t mean out.  The fire was continued to linger through October and November, fueled by dry conditions. 

Smoky PathCredit: Steve Bingham/USFWS

November 21, 2011: Out

The fire was declared out a couple days before Thanksgiving, but some areas of the refuge remain closed due to safety concerns.

The fire took a heavy toll on the refuge, destroying 230,000 Atlantic white cedar trees planted on the refugeafter a previous fire in 2008, as well as roads and heavy equipment.


Through my many years of reserve duty at Langley Air Force Base at Hampton, Va., I always took time to go hiking at Great Dismal; usually to Lake Drummond on Washington Ditch trail. I wonder what I would find if I were to visit the refuge now?
# Posted By Alan Gregory | 12/14/11 12:45 PM
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