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Smoke from Virginia fires invades Harford's air

The odor of smoke from brush fires in a huge swamp near Suffolk, Va., blew into Harford County Saturday morning, and emergency officials say this could be an issue in the county for the foreseeable future.

Around 11:15 a.m. Saturday, Harford County Emergency Operations issued a message through Connect CTY, the county's mass communication system, warning about the smell of smoke saturating the area and potential, related air quality issues.

Before the emergency call went out, the 9-1-1 call center had received more than 40 calls from people across the county reporting the smell of smoke and a possible fire nearby, according to Emergency Manager Rick Ayers.

"Otherwise we just would have been dispatching fire companies throughout the county chasing nothing," Ayers said Saturday afternoon.

After issuing the warning, the calls about smoke died down. The other reason Ayers cited for the warning call was to notify those with respiratory problems to be cautious.

Smoke from burning debris can potentially cause serious health problems such as shortness of breath and tightness in the chest, Bill Wiseman, public information officer for Harford County Health Department, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday.

Those with greater risk, such as people with lung or heart disease, infants, children, pregnant women, older adults and people with chronic diseases like asthma, should limit exposure to smoke, Wiseman wrote.

The acrid smell was still noticeable in the Fallston and Bel Air areas by around 1:30 p.m. Saturday but the smell gradually dissipated.

Ayers explained the smoke was emanating from a brush fire in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife refuge near Suffolk, Va., hundreds of miles to the south of the county.

The fire began Aug. 4 as the result of a lightning strike and, as of Saturday morning, it covered about 6,000 acres and was only 10 percent contained, said Ayers, who received all his information from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

"Evidently it's burning in real deep organic soil because they've had drought-like conditions," Ayers said, "They're expecting the smoke from this fire to last for quite a while."

Experts say it would take six inches of rain over a period of days to extinguish the fire, according to Ayers.

News reports say the fire was caused by a lightning strike and was still burning Tuesday.

"I think we're going to be dealing with this for the foreseeable future," Ayers said Saturday.

The fire is in a swampy area west of Norfolk and Virginia Beach that is difficult for emergency personnel to access, which complicates the process and makes battling the blaze difficult, Ayers said. The swamp straddles the Virginia and North Carolina borders for miles, most of it a veritable no-man's land.

"We'll probably only get the smell of smoke if the winds are blowing the right way," Ayers said.

They clearly were blowing in Harford's direction Saturday, though by Monday evening, the skies were clear and smoke free in Harford.

Greg Schoor, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, or NWS, said Tuesday the next few days will likely be smoke-free in Harford County based.

"Right now the wind is blowing from the opposite direction," Schoor said Tuesday, adding, "For right now, you're OK."

He said southern winds blew the smoke Harford County's way over the weekend.

"If you get a return flow, which we might get tomorrow and tomorrow night, then yes, there's a possibility it could return," Schoor said.

He added that there may be more southern winds Thursday and when those winds are at there highest, usually mid-afternoon, there may be potential for the odor to carry into Harford County again.

Aegis staff member Kayla Bawroski contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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