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Great Dismal Swamp fire pits firefighters against peat

August 20, 2011 |  2:05 pm

The Great Dismal Swamp fire

To the uninitiated, a swamp fire wouldn't seem especially difficult to extinguish -– swamps being, by their nature, damp.

But dampness goes only so far when it comes to firefighting. Swamp fires present special challenges. Inaccessibility is one. Peat is another.

As the hundreds of firefighters battling the Great Dismal Swamp fire in Virginia well know, the peat is a particular problem. Peat, which is rich with partially decayed trees and grasses, burns underground.

Firefighters can see the smoke -- indeed, people up to 420 miles away from the Great Dismal Swamp fire can see the smoke -– but they can't see the fire.

Helicopters aren't especially effective at dousing those underground flames, and lugging the pipes, pumps and hoses needed to drown the flames isn't easy across often-roadless areas.

Then there are the trees. As the peat burns from underneath the roots of the trees, the trees often topple over, endangering firefighters, said Catherine Hibbard, a spokeswoman for the multi-agency effort fighting the so-called Lateral West fire.

The uprooted trees then bake from the heat emerging from the peat beneath them and eventually spark up into flames, spreading the fire into new areas, Hibbard said in an interview with the Times.

The firefighters battling the massive Okefenokee Swamp blaze in southern Georgia and northern Florida know the perils of peat as well. As of this week, that fire, which started with a lightning strike on April 30, had claimed more than 300,000 acres of the 402,000-acre refuge, AP reports.

Also:

Terrain hinders fire crews in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp

Love-hate relationship with Washington plays out in Nevada

Senate ethics panel accuses ex-Sen. John Ensign of breaking the law

--Stephen Ceasar
Twitter: @stephenceasar

Photo: A firefighter walks along the interior ditch of the Dismal Swamp near Suffolk, Va. Aug. 15, 2011(AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, David B. Hollingsworth)

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