Sea Level fire

What officials call a "duff layer" continues to smolder underground, creating heavy smoke that winds are pushing toward homes and PruittHealth in Sea Level. These underground fires also threaten the root systems of trees. (Contributed photo)

SEA LEVEL — Crews are still on scene battling a fire that destroyed about a dozen acres of woodland in this Down East community.

No one was injured and the cause of the fire is still under investigation. As of mid-day Sunday, northeast winds were pushing heavy smoke toward PruittHealth.

According to County Forest Ranger Brent Toler, the fire appears to be human-caused, but exactly how it started is unknown.

Ranger Toler said the Down East Fire Department responded about 11 p.m. Friday night to a woods fire in the area of 201 East St., directly across Highway 70 from PruittHealth.

“We (forestry crews) responded to the scene about midnight,” he said Sunday.

Ranger Toler said the biggest concerns at present are controlling the underground fires that are creating heavy smoke, and that northeast winds are pushing toward PruittHealth. He said health center staff are closely monitoring clients and patients. Although they smell the smoke, it has not yet created problems within the facility.

“Our priority right now is getting these underground fires under control as the smoke is being pushed directly toward the health care center,” he said. "Humidity is low and there is no rain expected in the next several days.

“We also hope the winds will maintain and keep the smoke moving. If the winds die, the smoke will settle in the area, becoming heavier, something we do not want, especially for the health care center.”

He said fire department crews did a great job during the night Friday and into early Saturday, but terrain and darkness made the attack on the blaze difficult.

Crews continue to fight hot spots. Ranger Toler said county forestry has brought in a county tractor and a tractor from Craven County was also requested and is on scene.

According to the ranger, the area is a pocosin forest and riddled with underground pockets of fuels, such as peat.

“There are also underground pockets of water,” he said. “That makes it difficult for heavy equipment."

He said the surface fire is contained, but the fire has gone subterranean into what he called the "duff layer," resulting in underground fires and more heavy smoke. The ranger said the underground fire is also threatening the root system of trees, threatening the integrity of the trees.

The ranger said more crews and equipment would probably be brought in Sunday. At this time, he said no air support appears needed.

Ranger Toler said citizens and others driving through the area should use caution. “There will be smoke across the roadways and we urge drivers to be aware and look out for crews and equipment,” the ranger said.

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