An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

August 18, 2011

Code Purple

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.

Swamp Smoke

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.

Swamp Smoke (2)

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.

Swamp Smoke (4)

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.


  1. What terrible conditions. I hope weather conditions improve so all can breathe easier.

  2. My 12yr old nephew was visiting for the last week. Out of the blue one day he said how happy he was to live in Spokane, WA...where the weather is good, there are no natural disasters (tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes), insects, fires, extreme heat or cold. I thought it was an interesting outlook for a child so young. Reading your post brought that thought back to me. We are lucky here in the PNW.

  3. Wow, that seems like the perfect storm of miserable, I hope they are able to get those fires under control soon.

  4. We've not had a code purple, just its color opposite orange. Purple looks really bad~and how horrific that smoke looks in your photos. gail

  5. Is anyone talking about what effect the burning of the peat will have on the Great Dismal Swamp? It sounds like an ecological catastrophe, perhaps one that's been underway for a long time?

  6. I live a bit south of you in Elizabeth City, N.C. Finally some cooler days, but then more smoke! None our way the past couple of days though, so that's been a blessing.

    George Washington started draining the swamp, using mostly slave labor to dig "The Washington Ditch," but decided the effort was futile and abandoned it...

  7. In Florida code purple means jelly fish. Hope conditions are improving.

  8. so what golf course were the photos taken on? It would be kind of dangerous golfing. lol.

  9. Janet,
    Yesterday Norfolk was clear, it was at work in Suffolk where it was real bad. Today they were getting it again, but we were smokier today, though I did not let it stop me.

    No volcanoes or tsunamis? At least I hope not.

    We need a perfect storm, one with lots of rain.

    I wish I could have posted the smell too.

    It is a catastrophe. The area burning was one in which they were trying to restablish the Atlantic White Cedar. There is a good deal of wildlife in the area as well. Fortunately, in the animals case, the fire is moving very slowly, so hopefully things will have a chance to get out of the way.

    Washington may have been discouraged, but people after him did not get so deterred.

    We could use that code system as well. Our river is full of them.


  10. I almost found myself reaching for my inhaler just looking at those photos. What a disaster, so sad about the peat bogs, a precious resource and not exactly easily replaced. The loss of wildlife habitat could be catastrophic, surely? I know that in some ecologies fire is a necessary part of the natural cycle, but I assume areas based around peat bogs are not of their number, as like you say, the peat bogs would have been, well, boggy...

  11. Lord, please pour out rain on the burned areas.

    Cassy from Acoustic Guitar Lessons

  12. The photographs are so eerie. There are scattered showers and thunderstorm in the forecast, so hopefully a bit of rain will help you breath easy.

  13. We were home visiting Mom in June and the smoke from the fires then burning down in North Carolina gave me some problems with my COPD and chronic bronchial asthma. We've been following the fire in Suffolk closely because we intend to return to the Beach in September for mom's 88th birthday and the air show at NAS Oceana. Maybe tropical storm Irene will bring y'all some relief as is moves north

  14. It's two days after your posting and today's forecast for your area in Hampton Roads is total whiteout conditions... zero visibility from the smoke. I hope that did not happen.

  15. How horrible! Still, the smoke creates beautiful images. They remind me of misty mornings in England. I wish I could share our big rainstorm.

  16. Janet,
    One would think a swamp would not catch fire easily, but the peat is so dry right now. And yes, it will be a catastrope for wildlife.

    I believe the Lord has heard you and is sending Irene to take care of the fires.

    We need a thorough soaking, scattered has not dented it. See above.

    I think I would rather have one or two days of smoke each week, then what Irene is bringing.

    I took these last Thursday, which was the worst day so far.

    Oh, how I wish it was a misty English morning.