Wildfires still bringing smoke to central NC

The N.C. Division of Air Quality says residents east of Interstate 95 could experience unhealthy air quality on Thursday, and people are advised to avoid or reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors if they can see and smell smoke.

Fires in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare and Hyde counties, the Holly Shelter Game Land in Pender County, and southeast Georgia are affecting some coastal communities with smoke that could contain high levels of particle pollution. Smoke from the fires is drifting downwind.

Dozens of firefighters tried to control a wildfire along the southeast coast of North Carolina Thursday and officials warned that more than 2,000 homes could be threatened by the blaze that's already consumed nearly 20,000 acres.

"No matter which way the wind pushes it, there's danger," state forestry service spokeswoman Diane Steltz said of the fire, which started last weekend in Pender County's Holly Shelter Game Land. Officials believe lightning was the cause.

The forestry service lists around 2,100 houses that could be potentially threatened by the fire, which was moving northeast in the direction of Camp Lejeune on Thursday, Steltz said.

"If the wind shifts, it could move toward Topsail and Highway 17, where there are houses and businesses," she said.

It's so large that it could threaten homes in next door Onslow County and there have been some voluntary evacuations.

The fire caused the Marines to cancel an exercise which involved a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel. It was part of larger exercise caused Operation Mailed Fist, which involves every element of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.

The local chapter of the American Red Cross established a shelter in a middle school overnight for residents heeding a voluntary evacuation order, but no one used it Wednesday night, executive director Joy Branham said. But the shelter received calls throughout Thursday from residents asking when they should evacuate, she said.

As about 80 firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Local officials and weather experts alike worried that their efforts would get little assistance from Mother Nature in the coming days.

"If we're lucky enough, we could get some rain, but the probability is not there," said Reid Hawkins, science officer at the National Weather Service in Wilmington. "It doesn't look like it's going to be significant enough to put the fire out."

The best chance for rain in the coming days is Saturday, Hawkins said, but even then there's less than a 50 percent shot at it. Complicating matters is that much of the Pender fire is burning close to the ocean, while thunderstorms usually develop further inland, he said.

Even if thunderstorms do break over the fire, Pender County Emergency Management Director Tom Collins said he's worried they'd bring more wind than rain, possibly causing the blaze to spread.

The fire, which had spread to small parts of Onslow County, has joined with the smoke from another, largely contained coastal blaze in Hyde County in making for some unhealthy air quality both in North Carolina and even other states.

The haze in parts of Maryland's Worcester County was so bad on Wednesday that many residents called officials to report their suspicions of a wildfire in the area, Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon said.

"It's cleared up somewhat, but there's definitely still an odor," he said. "You can smell it when you're along the coast," about 300 miles north of the Holly Shelter blaze.

A second fire in Bladen County is estimated to have burned between about 1,200 acres. It also started with lightning and has burned three homes and eight outbuildings.

Forecasters have predicted potential Code Purple to Code Red conditions in nine counties. Code Orange conditions could exist throughout the coastal plain.

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