An Eastern North Carolina wildfire continued to grow Sunday as a slight increase in wind speeds helped fan the flames and fatten the fire's footprint, officials said.
Hannah Thompson, a spokeswoman with the N.C. Forest Service, said Sunday night that the blaze has now burned 32,556 acres, or about 51 square miles. And officials project the fire will continue its march to the north and east.
Winds increased slightly on Sunday after two days of calm winds that helped firefighters improve containment lines. Thompson said the area got a break when potential thunderstorms in the forecast, which could have further whipped the flames, failed to materialize.
She said the fire is about 40 percent contained.
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“It could have been a lot worse,” Thompson said. “We were prepared for the worst possible conditions but we got a little bit of a break today.”
The National Weather Service said winds, which have been in the low single digits, may increase slightly but will stay below 10 mph over the next few days.
Gov. Mike Easley has declared a state of emergency in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties. Nobody has been injured in the fire, and no buildings have been destroyed. But the fire has threatened about 80 homes and another 50 outbuildings, and workers have been actively laying down containment lines in case of continued expansion toward N.C. Highway 94.
The Forest Service estimated that the response to the fire has cost more than $1 million.
Officials have told residents in the area that smoke from the blaze could linger for months because the fire may smolder in the decayed vegetation that makes up the peat-filled soil. Firefighters are pumping water from nearby Phelps Lake to extinguish the ground fire in some areas.
The fire at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, about 70 miles south of Norfolk, Va., has already burned more acreage than the 10-year state average for all wildfires. Nearly 60,000 acres or 93.7 square miles across North Carolina have now burned since January, more than the annual totals for every year since 1986.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, R-N.C., whose district covers northeastern North Carolina, said people need to understand that this is a significant wildfire that could destroy homes and lives.
“We're going to do everything within our power to focus the attention of the federal government on this disaster,” Butterfield said.