Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
P. O. Box 329
Columbia, North Carolina 27925

Contact: Howard Phillips- 252-796-3004 ext 226

News Release

August 6, 2008

Evans Road Fire- Before and After

In the August 4 update for the Evans Road Fire, Information Officer Roger Miller announced, “This will be the last scheduled Evans Road Fire Update.” In local communities, the unspoken question is obvious, “Does this mean the Evans Road Fire is out?” Miller went on to say that the fire is 90% contained, the water pumping operation has been shut down, and “Without adequate rainfall, hotspots will continue to smolder underground in remote areas and in sections where complete flooding could not be accomplished.” The Evans Road Fire still burns underground, awaiting the arrival of a major rain event to extinguish it for good.

During June and July, smoke from the Evans Road Fire impacted areas more than a 100 miles away. But, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties have been "Ground Zero" for the fire that started on private land southeast of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on June 1 and now has scorched approximately 41,000 acres including 25,000 acres of the 110,106-acre Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

During the same time period, the more-recently-ignited South 1 Fire on Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, approximately two hours to the north, burned more than 4,500 acres.

Those are just the existing fires. All of Eastern North Carolina has been in very high fire danger condition for most of the summer. Only recent steady and regular rains have lowered the fire danger and doused the surface portions of the Evans Road Fire. Each light rain event has dampened fire danger overall, but only temporarily.

What determines dangerous fire conditions?

“Fuel moisture for fine to medium-sized fuel was measured at four percent early in June," said Tom Crews, District Fire Management Officer for the nine national wildlife refuges in Eastern North Carolina. "These fuels include dried leaves, pine straw, and small branches laying on the forest floor. Four percent is more like what you would expect in the western states than in eastern North Carolina. Combustibility of these fuels reached an all-time record high for June in the North Carolina coastal plain. For most of June, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was in 'readiness level five'. That means we're in the most dangerous conditions for a fire."

“Under these conditions,” continued Crews, “forest fires are much more difficult to stop or slow-down. The heat also has an adverse effect on firefighters working under oppressive conditions. July’s fuel moisture readings increased to above 15% - indicating the fire danger had dropped significantly, but not enough to allow us to let down our guard.”

How do refuge staff respond to such events?

For many refuge staff, including all of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge fire crew and some support staff from other refuges, the Evans Road Fire has been their primary focus for over two months. Other fire-qualified employees on refuges in the area have been on “standby” mode. That means they're patrolling, staffing fire equipment, and always ready to respond to any fires that may ignite on other national wildlife refuges in the district. If all fire personnel were assigned to the Evans Road Fire, it would leave the other national wildlife refuges defenseless against a wildfire.

How long will the Evans Road Fire burn?

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Manager Howard Phillips predicts it will continue to burn for a while. “During June and July, we knew it was going to take a heavy rain to put this fire out," said Phillips. " Our plan was to try our best to keep the fire contained until that rain came. With all the ground fire, it just wasn’t possible for us to put the fire out. Our efforts were to flood the areas along the containment lines to put the ground fire out there.”

Phillips added, “Now that we’ve had very successful pumping operations to douse some of the ground fire and some steady rain to extinguish the surface fire, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with the remaining ground fire when the conditions change again.”

Ground fire occurs when the fire begins to burn the peat soil. The fire can smolder for long periods of time, burning deeper into the peat. It's the ground fire that produces the constant white smoke.

Robert Eaton, the Service’s Southeast Deputy Regional Fire Management Coordinator agreed with Phillips. “Unfortunately, I think we are in it for the long haul. Weather predictions for late summer and fall are calling for warm, dry conditions. However, the Evans Road Fire was almost inevitable due to the extreme drought, high temperatures, and low humidity in eastern North Carolina. We had seen what would happen under these conditions last summer during the Big Turnaround Fire down at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in South Georgia, so we have already been preparing for a wildfire of this magnitude.”

What are the preparations?

“Prescribed burning is used on national wildlife refuges to burn out the dense vegetation that serves as 'fuel' for wildfires," said Kelley Van Druten, Wildland-Urban Interface Specialist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Eastern North Carolina. "Removing these fuels in this way prevents fires from burning with as much intensity if a fire starts there at a later date. This will also lessen the possibility of a damaging wildfire there or in surrounding areas.”

The Service also routinely establishes series of fuel breaks along refuge boundaries near communities and in the interior of the refuge. Pocosin Lakes also has installed water control structures to restore more natural wetness to the landscape. And the District has acquired grant money to provide 16 local volunteer fire departments with wildland fire gear and training opportunities.

Refuge firefighters remain ready through intensive training and maintaining needed equipment, such as tractors, plows, engines, and fire gear. They also attend an Annual Fire Management Officer Workshop to get up-to-date information about fire safety, current fire policy, planning procedures, and training opportunities. All Service wildland firefighters must be red-carded and achieve an appropriate rating on a physical fitness test, known as the “Pack Test.”

Wildfires are wide-ranging and unpredictable and threaten communities, as well as refuges.

How can homes be protected?

There are quite a few small steps that homeowners can take on their own to improve their homes’ resistance to a wildfire. Van Druten suggests designing and landscaping homes with wildfire safety in mind by selecting materials and plants that are less flammable and more resistant to fire. Use non-combustible roofing material and plant shrubs and trees with low flammability ratings. Create a 30-100-foot safety zone around homes by keeping up with routine maintenance and regularly cleaning roofs and gutters, removing brush and dead limbs and mowing grass.

Who's in charge?

Phillips praises the NC and FL Incident Management Teams for their work on the Evans Road Fire. Leadership on these teams falls to the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources. Thus far, the Evans Road Fire has had five Type 2 teams from the NC Forest Service and one interagency team from Florida.

On the South 1 Fire, the Southern Region Interagency Incident Management Type 2 Team was brought in to manage the fire that still is solely on the refuge. The leadership on this team falls to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“There were a couple of ways to manage the Evans Roads Fire situation. Since the fire started on private land, the NC Division of Forest Resources had an Incident Command Team immediately. Once the fire spread to the refuge, we could have ordered up a federal team to work along-side the state team. But, we decided the most practical way would be to have one team run the fire suppression effort," said Phillips. "The US Fish and Wildlife Service has delegated the authority for fighting this fire on the refuge to the NC Division of Forest Resources. But, we’re involved in every decision, and we’ve provided support every step of the way. Also, each team has ordered up state and federal firefighters from all over the US to assist with this effort.”

For more information on protecting homes from wildfire damage, visit www.firewise.org

For additional information about the Evans Road Fire, visit the National Fire Incident website at http://inciweb.org/state/34 or http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes.

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. For more information on the work and the people who make it happen, visit
http://www.fws.gov/southeast/ or http://www.fws.gov.