Wildfire smoke wafts to busy beaches

On a bad day, the wind whips a cloud of peat-scented smoke clear to Manteo, where it dusts the fishing boats in a coat of ash.

You can catch the smell of burning forest all the way to Nags Head, especially in the morning, when the lifeguards first climb to their chairs.

The smoldering smell will often carry 30 miles west to Columbia, where it's pungent enough to keep locals bunkered indoors.

"When it gets really bad, I come out my door and say, 'Oh, no,' and I head back inside," said Toni Brickhouse, a waitress at Mike's Kitchen. "It gets bad enough to knock you down."

The fire that started with a lightning bolt on May 4 has now spread to 44,969 acres of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, blanketing the Dare County back roads with a fog so thick a car needs its headlights at noon.

This is no Arizona wildfire, which has forced 2,000 people to evacuate.

Still, state officials cite pollution levels that measure in the Code Purple range, or very unhealthy, from the North Carolina fire. And hints of the blaze have been detected as far west as the Triangle and Charlotte, where air-quality alerts remain in or near the Code Orange range, meaning unhealthy for people who are sensitive to air pollution.

Stand in the tiny Dare fishing village of Stumpy Point, near the heart of the fire, and it won't take long for a pair of unseasoned lungs to feel like they've sucked down a pack of cigarettes.

"It almost makes you sick," said Robert Phillips, a retiree who lives in Manteo, as he read by the ocean. "It's hard to describe. ... It's hard to breathe and it's disturbing."

Locals say they're irritated the blaze is still strong after a month, especially the workers in nearby Hyde County who have seen their commutes double in distance because of closed roads.

A long, slow burn

But most shrug it off as a minor annoyance, and the chamber of commerce on the Outer Banks reports the smoke hasn't chased off any tourists. The beaches were hopping with surfers and toddlers in water wings Wednesday, smoke or no smoke.

"You can smell it when the wind's right, but it's all good," said Deborah Ann Ingham, sunning herself to a deep tan. "Wish we could stop it, but it happened."

But in the refuge - 20 miles to the southwest, down U.S. 264 - the fire is harder to ignore.

You can still see the flames licking out of the soil, just feet from the asphalt where cars still travel. For miles, the forest is black from the tree roots to the tips of the bare branches. After an hour, the smoke brings on headaches and deep coughs.

The state Division of Air Quality advises against outdoor exertion in Orange areas, especially for children, the elderly and people with heart and respiratory trouble. But on Wednesday, Dicky Meekins pedaled down the main street of Stumpy Point on his bicycle, smack in the middle of the thickest smoke.

"Yesterday morning, when we woke up, we couldn't see that Excursion there," he said, pointing to a Ford SUV parked 20 feet away. "I can't really say we're getting used to it. You wonder why they haven't taken care of it by now."

Beach is still buzzing

On Tuesday, at least 286 fire fighters were battling the blaze with 13 plow units, 32 high-volume lift pumps on 21 engines and four helicopters with aerial water tanks, said Robert Brown, a spokesman for the N.C. Division of Forest Resources.

Soil in the refuge, made of peat, burns as far as 8 feet down. So firefighters are pumping water around the edges of the blaze, keeping the fire from spreading further. But the center of the burning area stands 7 feet higher in places, and it's hard to pump water uphill.

"It's going to take some rain," said Larry Such, plans chief with the Division of Forest Resources. "There's a lot of interior burning we just can't get to."

Smoke from the wildfire will sometimes cross Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island, where Stephanie and Larry Ihle offer helicopter and biplane tours over Cape Hatteras and Kitty Hawk.

As his busy season warms up, he is already finding visibility too low to take passengers into the air, though so far the smoke has only delayed rather than canceled his flights.

"We've been very lucky so far, but I can barely see across the field," Ihle said.

But on the beach, it takes a southwest wind for the smoke to bother anybody, and charter boat captain Will Ross said Manteo has been enjoying a lot of east winds.

Meekins predicts the tourists will come regardless. He cleans carpets in the beach rentals for a living, and he knows nothing stops a tourist who has paid in advance.

At Nags Head, Michael Joyner from Concord proved him right.

"A little bit of wildfire is better than staying at home," said Joyner, playing with his daughter in the surf. "So long as it's not over us."