There hasn’t been much good to say about the Great Dismal Swamp wildfire.
In less than three weeks, it has torched 6,000 acres and the resulting smoke continues to pose health risks from Suffolk to Gloucester County and beyond.
There is, however, a potential positive effect.
Believed to have started Aug. 4 by lightning, the fire is fed by peat — a carbon-rich blanket of vegetation that covers the swamp floor. It can be as deep as 30 feet.
The accumulation of peat can be problematic, according to Christopher Newport University professor Robert Atkinson, because in many places the water level sits below it. Consequently, the swamp becomes extremely dry and susceptible to wildfires.
An optimistic view is that the peat will burn down to the current water level making the parched swamp soggy. If so, conditions could be right for the resurgence of the Atlantic white cedar and other vegetation, Atkinson said in an email.
The Dismal Swamp was once home to the largest stand of white cedars, which are found from Maine to Mississippi. Hundreds of acres of cedars, which collect and store more carbon than any other ecosystem in North America, were burned in a 2008 wildfire.
Atkinson, his students, the federal government and other groups replanted the trees only to see the fire burn them earlier this month.
Whenever the fire stops — remnants of Hurricane Irene, anyone? — Atkinson said he plans to examine its effect on the swamp. From there, he hopes to restart the cedar restoration project.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun