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Crews work to contain coastal wildfires in NC

By Tom Breen

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Gov. Beverly Perdue declared a state of emergency in eastern North Carolina Saturday as crews worked to contain stubborn wildfires that have been aided by difficult terrain and severe drought conditions.

Perdue's declaration means the state can seek federal aid and get assistance from other states in fighting the blazes, which together had scorched roughly 70,000 acres along the state's coast.

Crews working to contain the blazes "will continue to focus on the top priorities of protecting lives and property nearest the fires," Perdue said in a statement accompanying the emergency declaration.

Firefighters had made progress early Saturday on the blaze causing the most concern, which is burning in Pender and Onslow counties. The Holly Shelter Game Lands blaze began with a lightning strike on June 19, but nearly quadrupled in size in the course of a few days earlier this week. It stood at more than 21,000 acres Saturday morning, but a little rainfall on Thursday helped crews get it about 15 percent contained.

A voluntary evacuation order for residents near the blaze in Onslow County was lifted and two Red Cross shelters that had been set up earlier in the week closed after no evacuees showed up to spend the night.

"The threat is not real imminent, but it still exists," state forest service spokesman Bruce MacDonald said. "This doesn't mean the fire is going away. After a few days of dry weather and wind, it will be ready to burn again."

Firefighters were looking for areas around the blaze where they might be able to start a burnout operation, in which smaller fires are deliberately set to starve the wildfire of new fuel.

A burnout operation was attempted Friday at a wildfire in Bladen County that's so far consumed more than 1,200 acres, but it didn't have the desired effect, forestry spokesman Chris Meggs said. So now crews are planning to use heavy equipment to provide a direct line to the center of the blaze, where they hope to pump water directly on it.

"We're going back to a direct attack," he said.

But such tactics are challenging in the coastal areas where the biggest fires are burning, because the muddy, bushy terrain makes it difficult for firefighters to walk through, let alone get tractors and other large pieces of equipment close enough to the fires.

The third major blaze in the east is mostly contained, but scorched more than 45,000 acres of land since it began May 5. Even though firefighters have the Dare County blaze about 95 percent under control, they expect parts of it will continue burning for days or weeks, until the area gets at least six inches of a good, soaking rain.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be likely, at least in the immediate future. The National Weather Service predicts what meteorologist Steven Pfaff calls "a typical summertime pattern" of isolated, scattered showers and thunderstorms that are unlikely to bring significant amounts of rain to the area.