Wildfire threatens more than 2,000 homes near N.C. coast

Dozens of firefighters tried to control a wildfire along the southeast coast of North Carolina on Thursday, and officials warned that more than 2,000 homes could be threatened by the blaze that has already consumed nearly 20,000 acres.

"No matter which way the wind pushes it, there's danger," state forestry service spokeswoman Diane Steltz said of the fire, which started last weekend in Pender County's Holly Shelter Game Land. Officials believe lightning was the cause.

The forestry service listed about 2,100 houses that could be potentially threatened by the fire, which was moving northeast in the direction of Camp Lejeune on Thursday, Steltz said.

"If the wind shifts, it could move toward Topsail and Highway 17, where there are houses and businesses," she said.

The local chapter of the American Red Cross established a shelter in a middle school overnight for residents heeding a voluntary evacuation order, but no one used it Wednesday night, executive director Joy Branham said. The shelter received calls throughout Thursday from residents asking when they should evacuate, she said.

About 80 firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Local officials and weather experts worried that their efforts will get little assistance from Mother Nature in the coming days.

"If we're lucky enough, we could get some rain, but the probability is not there," said Reid Hawkins, science officer at the National Weather Service in Wilmington. "It doesn't look like it's going to be significant enough to put the fire out."

The best chance for rain in the coming days is Saturday, Hawkins said, but even then there's less than a 50 percent shot at it. Complicating matters is that much of the Pender fire is burning close to the ocean, while thunderstorms usually develop further inland, he said.

Even if thunderstorms do break over the fire, Pender County Emergency Management Director Tom Collins said he's worried they would bring more wind than rain, possibly causing the blaze to spread.

The fire, which had spread to small parts of Onslow County, has joined with the smoke from another, largely contained coastal blaze in Hyde County in making for some unhealthy air quality in North Carolina and even other states.

The haze in parts of Maryland's Worcester County was so bad on Wednesday that many residents called officials to report their suspicions of a wildfire in the area, Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon said.

"It's cleared up somewhat, but there's definitely still an odor," he said. "You can smell it when you're along the coast," about 300 miles north of the Holly Shelter blaze.