Saturday, October 1, 2022

2,000 acres ablaze over 30 hours: Crews continue battling Holly Shelter Game Lands fire

Crews remain on site battling the wildfire at Holly Shelter Game Lands. (Courtesy/Pender County Emergency Management)

HAMPSTEAD — Crews are on site at Holly Shelter Game Lands in Pender County, working to contain a wildfire that started Wednesday and has spread to thousands of acres. Named the “Juniper Road Two Fire,” flames are moving east and roughly 2 miles away from Highway 50, but officials say there’s no threat at this time of it reaching major structures.

Wednesday morning officials determined the fire is the result of a former blaze that took place on the game lands earlier in the month but had been extinguished by personnel.

“But conditions became favorable for whatever reason, and it was smoldering in the imprint of the initial fire line, and became hot enough to essentially reignite,” N.C. Forest Service spokesperson Carrie McCullen explained.

A team of roughly 20 individuals — including firefighters, tractor plows, aircraft and residual personnel — have been battling the flames since 10:30 a.m. Aug. 11.

Based on initial attack operations, which include heavy equipment clearing thick brush, containment is about 25%. But there is still “quite a ways to go,” McCullen said.

The equipment working to plow the land creates a “line” around the fire to remove foliage down to the soil, with hopes of limiting it to that area’s radius, McCullen explained.

“It takes out any potential vegetation from catching fire,” she said. “We actually stop a wildfire out in a natural setting by putting lines around the fire with dozers bringing it down to mineral soil, where there are no roots, no organic matter, no vegetation, in efforts to stop its progression.”

The 2,000 acres affected are a rough estimate at this time, McCullen explained. Firefighters are actively plotting out latitude and longitude as they work, to map an accurate distance of the fire’s magnitude.

Full firefighting tactics ceased around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, when officials assessed weather conditions had subsided enough to forego overnight activity. Emergency management staff from Pender and Onslow counties remained on the scene, taking measurements and surveying the smoke into the early-morning hours.

“Fire has a tendency to drop smoke down to ground level overnight,” McCullen said. “It works with relative humidity. So, we monitor to make sure it doesn’t spread overnight and cause hazardous road conditions.”

Twenty-one N.C. Forest Service personnel were back at it by 7 a.m. Thursday and will continue to work 12-hour shifts, taking hydration and cool-down breaks as frequently as possible, she added.

Other resources manning the blaze include a dozen tractor plow units with crewmen, one helicopter, two single engine air tankers dropping water from above, one scout and a lead plane.

More management staff from the N.C. Forest Service is anticipated to provide aid in the coming days.

How it started

On Aug. 2, airplane crews noticed smoke billowing from the game lands. They suspected a fire was ignited due to a dry thunderstorm. Likely, McCullen said, lightning hit a tall pine tree.

Planes often monitor the area during “high danger” days, meaning low relative humidity and dry conditions. The game lands sit in an area of “extreme forest fire danger” and have experienced over 60 fires in the last century.

“Lighting strikes are the hardest thing for us,” McCullen explained. “Oftentimes the heat will sit until days later … that smoldering activity may have festered in the ground or tree and hits the right elements, right temperature, humidity, conditions where it causes an ember to move and ignite.”

The immense heat energy accumulates in the soil and surrounding vegetation but may not cause smoke. It can be “days or even weeks” before an ignition occurs, McCullen detailed.

This could have resulted from vegetation not being fully removed, wind gusts, or other natural occurrences.

Pender County is currently considered “abnormally dry” per drought conditions. Since the beginning of August, the National Weather Service shows the greater Wilmington area has received 0.04 inches of rain, far below normal levels of 1.73 this time of year. 

When the pilots realized there was smoke Aug. 2, they responded immediately to place a line around the perimeter. The fire was 100% contained the same day.

McCullen said there is one benefit of this fire’s circumstance: The N.C. Forest Service knew how to tackle it based on a 2011 Juniper Road Fire, which occurred in the same area, also as a result of a lightning strike.

“It’s come in handy in our abilities to jump on this as quickly as we did and get the resources we needed,” McCullen said. “We knew exactly what this fire was capable of.”

Over a decade ago, the 31,140-acre fire ignited at Holly Shelter, which comprises 63,580 acres.The fire burned from June 19 to Aug. 31 and in its aftermath substantially changed the hydrology and plant life in the area, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

Certain pines and herb diversity were reduced because of past fires. An abundance of wildlife was lost as a result as well.

McCullen said she’s not aware of any wildlife harmed at this time, as the animals instinctively move away from the flames. As far as the landscape, she said it will grow back after the fire has been extinguished.

“The beauty of a wildfire is once the landscape gets burned over, in time, seed thrown from surrounding vegetation will re-seed the area,” McCullen explained. “New growth will occur. Grasses will regenerate — essentially, it’s recreating the ecosystem that’s already here.”

While the Holly Shelter Game Lands do remain open to the public, McCullen advises visitors to keep clear of the fire and working personnel.

“As long as our equipment stays healthy, our people stay healthy, and we get all the resources we need, we’re hoping to put this out as quickly as possible,” McCullen said. 

It’s still too early to predict when crews can gain full control of the fire, she added: “To put a date on it would be a gamble at best.”

Holly Game Shelter is the largest game land owned and managed by the state of North Carolina since 1939. Its main purpose is for conservation of wildlife, though it welcomes hunters annually, from September through January, who pursue deer, bear, turkey, fox, rabbit, raccoon, squirrel and dove. Hiking and camping are allowed year-round in designated areas and there is a shooting range.

There are no road closures in the area currently, but officials are asking residents to keep the routes clear to allow personnel to enter and exit safely.

“The more traffic out here, the harder it is for passability and to navigate where we need to go,” she said. “We’re encouraging folks to stay away.”

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