Hurricane Irene nearly douses wildfire at Great Dismal Swamp

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Though Hurricane Irene ravaged much of the Eastern Seaboard, it also provided a bit of relief in one place: the Great Dismal Swamp.

A wildfire has been burning in the unforgiving forested marshland in southeastern Virginia since early August, charring more than 6,300 acres at the national wildlife refuge.

But when Hurricane Irene tore its way through North Carolina and Virginia, it drenched the area with about 15 inches of rain and helped douse some of the stubborn fire.

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The blaze went from being about 35% contained to 90% contained over the weekend, said Catherine Hibbard, spokeswoman for the multi-agency effort fighting the blaze, officially known as the Lateral West fire.

“We’re very thankful, but it’s a double-edged storm,” Hibbard said. “It caused a lot of damage, but it’s good that it dumped a lot of water on this fire.”

Firefighters had been forced to battle not only the extremely difficult terrain, but also the particular nature of a swamp fire. Flames ignited patches of abundant marsh peat -- soil made of partially decayed organic material, such as trees and grasses. The peat smolders and leaves no visible flames to fight, even as it smolders underground.

Crews had been pumping water into the swamp from a nearby lake to flood the smoldering peat, but had trouble reaching certain hot spots.

The hurricane ended up dousing the more intense fires, but left other obstacles for crews, Hibbard said. The remaining hot spots have proved difficult to reach because of flooded roads and fallen trees.


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-- Stephen Ceasar

after Hurricane Irene passed. Credit: Rob Ostermaier / Daily Press