SUFFOLK — As Tuesday afternoon wore on in a rural section of southern Suffolk, the giant plume of smoke set off by a growing blaze in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge continued its gradual ascent into the Eastern sky, its colors morphing from white to gray to brown, pink and yellow.
From a distance, the sight was mesmerizing. Up close, it was quite the opposite.
“It’s hard going, it’s tough out there,” said Cody Daniels, a senior firefighter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Down where we’re at right now, it’s just socked in with smoke. It’s tough to breathe.”
During his drive Tuesday morning to the front lines, Daniels said he couldn’t see the front of his truck because the smoke was so thick.
More than 50 firefighters from across the Southeast are working 12- to 14-hour days to contain the fast-growing blaze, which had consumed more than 3,200 acres of the refuge as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday. That’s up from an estimated 2,355 acres 24 hours earlier, said Barb Stewart, a fire-response spokeswoman.
Heavy smoke from the fire engulfed much of Hampton Roads on Tuesday, prompting the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to issue an air quality alert that extends at least through Wednesday.
The DEQ issued a Code Orange alert for Wednesday and advised older adults, children and people with heart or lung disease in Hampton Roads to limit outdoor activities.
Officials this week closed access to Lake Drummond and the North Carolina state park portion of the swamp and restricted access to most of the refuge.
The wildfire began as two small fires last week on the western side of the 113,000 square-mile refuge that stretches from Suffolk and Chesapeake across the North Carolina border. Officials say the cause was likely lightning.
Over the weekend, hot temperatures and high winds combined with arid conditions to push the fire east toward Lake Drummond, where it jumped a firebreak and continued to expand Monday and Tuesday.
“It’s still growing, no question,” Stewart said. “Unless we get six inches of rain in a short amount of time, it’s going to be awhile before we can get this thing under control.”
Fueled by dry grasses, acres of hot-burning peat and timber, the fire is centered on the scar created by a similar wildfire in 2008 that charred 4,800 acres of forest and swampland and took 121 days and $11 million to fight.
Two helicopters equipped with 200- to 650-gallon buckets circled the site Tuesday, scooping up water from Lake Drummond to drop on the flames. Nearby, another crew guided bulldozers to clear a fire line in hopes of hemming in the blaze.
Others worked to dam a ditch and began filling it with lake water that will be used to douse the fire along its perimeter.
It might be two days or longer before the ditch is filled with a sufficient amount of water to allow firefighters to start using it on the fire, Daniels said.
“This is going to be a big fire, so it’s going to take a lot of water,” he said.
Firefighters from several agencies and private contractors continued Tuesday to flood into the fire’s makeshift command center in a refuge maintenance shed, and officials expect dozens of others to join the effort in coming days.
“I can tell this will be very challenging, and I think we’ll have a lot of days out here,” said Deb Blais, the crew boss for a group of 20 Asheville, N.C.-based contractors who has spent 18 summers fighting wildfires. “Some days we’ll get ahead of it and some days we’ll probably get our butts kicked. That’s what happens.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun