A new element has been added to our local weather forecasts, color coded air quality alerts. Today was a code purple kind of day, the worst. The problem is a fire in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge that was started by lightening on August 4th. It has continued to burn almost out of control to the point that over 6000 acres are now affected, mostly in Virginia, but also in North Carolina.
The situation has been compounded by the hand of nature and the hand of man. There are still many fallen trees from 2003's Hurricane Isabel. Though not as severe, there was another fire last year that left behind incompletely burnt fuel. Ironically, that fire was started by one of the pieces of equipment used in efforts to restore the Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) habitat. This year we had drought conditions until just recently, so the grasses and shrubs were in a dry state. However, the trump card in this disaster is the peat. Millenia old layers of dry, carbon-rich peat are slowly burning causing the thick acrid smoke. In some places it has been estimated that up to 4-6' of the peat has burned changing elevations of the swamp.
The peat would not be so dry if the water levels in the Dismal Swamp were kept at natural levels. Beginning with George Washington, the swamp has been subjected to centuries of ditching, canals and draining which have lowered the ground water level several feet. In another bit of irony, the strategy to attack this year's fire involves installing large pumps throughout the swamp to redistribute the water and fight the fire. If you have ever smothered a campfire with water, you know how much smoke is produced.
This morning there were several accidents due to the smoke, causing road closures and general traffic mayhem, in an area already famous for its mayhem. It also made working outside difficult, but I surprised myself as to what I could tolerate. We are supposed to have another day of this tomorrow, but then after the wind will shift, and some other group of people will be affected. In the meantime I will hope the pumps work and more rain might fall.