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Great Dismal Swamp fire won't give up 4,300 acres have been charred; firefighters look to the sky for help ; Sunday, Jul 06, 2008 - 12:09 AM ;Updated: 07:15 PM ; By BILL GEROUX TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER SUFFOLK -- Smoke from wildfires in the Great Dismal Swamp and a larger fire in North Carolina has settled in like a rude summer guest among the 1.6 million people of Hampton Roads.

At times it has enveloped Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk in bluish haze. It has reached as far as Richmond and the Eastern Shore.

And the end might not be in sight.

Firefighters say it may take a hurricane or tropical storm to put out the swamp fire, the largest wildfire in the Great Dismal Swamp in decades.

In a month, it has charred 4,300 acres in the heart of the 111,000acre swamp.

"The smoke bothers me, stings my eyes, gives me a headache," said James Jones, a concrete worker from Norfolk. "I was going to go out on Sunday, but I opened my door and smelled the smoke and said, 'Oh, no,' and I spent the day indoors."

The smoke "is a nuisance, it's unfortunate and none of us needs it," said Carolyn McCormick, director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. The Outer Banks gets it from the swamp and from a far bigger wildfire in North Carolina.

The U.S. is full of wildfires, including more than 300 in California alone. In southwestern Virginia, dozens of firefighters continued working yesterday to contain a blaze that has burned more than 500 acres in the Jefferson National Forest in Botetourt County. It is believed to have been sparked by a lightning strike Thursday.

. . .

The Dismal Swamp fire, officially known as the South One fire, is smoldering through the 6-foot-deep organic soil covering the floor of the swamp.

It is 90 percent contained but shows no sign of going out, and it emits pillars of acrid smoke that are blown by the wind from city to city.

The only way to douse it is to flood it, said U.S. Forest Service supervisor Ronnie Taylor, a veteran of swamp fires in Florida.

"We'll do our best to contain this fire," Taylor said. "But y'all need a lot of rain."

Rainfall has been scarce in the swamp, a pocket of dense wilderness along the Virginia-North Carolina border, an hour from the coast. Mike Rusnak, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Wakefield, said a series of thunderstorms could deliver flooding rains if they hit right. If not, he said, a tropical storm system, from a depression to a hurricane, could do the job later.

The peak of the local hurricane season is late August and September.

. . .

The fire is burning less than 5 percent of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge manager Chris Lowie said the blaze is the latest in a series of events that began in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel toppled a large swath of Atlantic white cedar trees in the southern end of the refuge near Lake Drummond.

Four weeks ago, Lowie said, the refuge was trying to clear out some of those fallen trees -- partly to avoid a wildfire -- when a logging contractor's equipment caught fire and ignited the dead wood.

Firefighting supervisors designed a fire line along existing roads and water-filled ditches. They have tried to hold the fire within 5,600 acres inside those lines. The fire has jumped the lines twice, most recently last weekend, when winds from a thunderstorm fanned the flames and sent them racing along the shore of Lake Drummond.

The fire's breakout, still not fully contained, prompted the forest service to call in a more experienced team of firefighters. "The fire just isn't cooperating with us," said fire information officer Betsy Coffee.

She said crews were extending a network of hoses and high-volume pumps to suck water from ditches and the lake and pour it on the fire. Some of the pumps can handle 6,000 gallons of water an hour.

But the fire is stubborn and difficult to figure, said Gene-Paul Matson, a firefighter. Even areas that appear burned out can re-ignite with little warning, he said, as one did recently around him. "A wind came up suddenly and we had 30-foot flames."

As he spoke, Matson sprayed water from a hose onto a furiously smoking tree stump. It was one of dozens of hot spots scattered across a wasteland of burned tree stumps on the fire's south flank. All the soil had burned away to expose the stumps to their roots.

Contact Bill Geroux at (757) 498-2820 or bgeroux@timesdispatch.com.

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