Yesterday, winds finally started pushing thick smoke our way from the fire, which began 11 days ago and has since burned about 40,000 acres over an area of 63 square miles in three relatively sparsely populated counties, according to local news sources. The fire is described as the largest in North Carolina in the past 20 years, and it is currently the largest active wildfire in the United States.
Our city is now under a "Code Red" air quality advisory due to a shroud of fine particulate matter "that can penetrate deeply into the lungs and be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing or aggravating heart and lung diseases." Hmm. That doesn't sound good. Today produced the highest concentration of airborne fine particles ever measured in Raleigh for such an extended period of time, according to the N.C. Division of Air Quality. We are being urged to stay indoors when possible.
The thick substrate of highly combustible peat is fueling the blaze at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which lies just west of the northern part of the Outer Banks. It is 110,106 acres of extraordinary wilderness that is home to more than 250 black bears, representing the densest population of black bears reported anywhere (an estimated 1.67 bears per square kilometer). I once had the thrilling, though fleeting, experience of seeing a mother and her two cubs on one of the refuge's many dirt roads. The refuge is also the only place in the world where endangered red wolves* live in the wild.
FYI, Pocosin Lakes refuge get its name from the pocosin (pu-KOH-sin) habitat that dominates the acreage of the refuge. Pocosins, which are highly endangered (and fire-dependent) habitats, are defined by dense tracts of evergreen shrubs and scattered pond pine, underlain by deep layers of boggy, peat soils. Lots of food and hiding places for bears!
I tend to fawn and coo disproportionately over mammals, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Pocosin Lakes NWR is a spectacular wintering ground for migratory waterfowl. In December 2006, refuge biologist Wendy Stanton counted more than 78,000 snow geese and about 26,000 tundra swans in a single morning on Lake Pungo, a record number for that time of year.
Of course, I thought immediately of the animals, and a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot did too. An excerpt from the June 6th article eased my mind a bit:
Animals in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge should be fine, said Chris Lucash, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in charge of the red wolf restoration project that has been going on at the refuge since the late 1980s.
If the fire threatens animals - deer, bear, raccoons, squirrels, birds and the red wolves that live there - they will move away, Lucash said.
If the fire had come a few weeks earlier, there would have been concern for the baby red wolves that might have been in dens. But the fire, later in the year, shouldn't be a threat to the area's animal population, Lucash said.
"They will simply move to an area where the wind is pushing the smoke away," he said. "In some areas, the fire has been raging, but wildlife has evolved where fire is a part of their existence. There's something in wild animals that tells them to avoid these situations."
* For a cool account of a wolf/bobcat sighting at the refuge by Mike Dunn, a naturalist, educator, photographer and all-around-great-guy, check out this page from Field Trip Earth.