(Note: This blog was written before Hurricane Irene visited Hampton Roads) On August 4, lightning struck in the Dismal Swamp and sparked the largest fire there since it became a national wildlife refuge. Over 6000 acres have burned to date, all of Hampton Roads have felt the effects of the heavy smoke and poor air quality. At this point, the fire is only about 15% contained, so I’m afraid we’ll be feeling its effects for some time yet. (Photo, above, courtesy of www.dailypress.com)

The fire in The Swamp is different from what most would picture to be a “typical” wildfire, in which furious flames rise upwards and spread outwards. Most of the current fire in The Swamp is a peat fire, which burns and smolders underground and creates a heavy, billowing yellow smoke. I read that some of the deepest peat fires burning right now are estimated to be six feet deep into the ground. And consider this: it takes 900 years for nature to create one single inch of peat! That’s a lot of centuries going up in smoke.

But this is the natural cycle, the way things are supposed to be. We all know that wildfires are a necessary element in the natural cycle of a healthy ecosystem, and somehow it makes me feel better that this fire started by natural means rather than by man’s carelessness or vandalism. (Knowing this does not, however, make the pervasive smoky air any easier to breathe.)

I did take a nature walk in The Swamp last week, along Washington Ditch. The air was smoky, but I still saw deer, birds, snakes and a few butterflies (photos of White-tailed Deer and Prothonotary Warbler, above). Of course I have no way of knowing if I would have seen more without the smoke, but I don’t think it had a large impact on the wildlife. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Catherine Hibbard was quoted in The Daily Press, saying “Wildlife at the 111,200-acre refuge, which includes bald eagles, deer, bobcats, rattlesnakes and at least 57 species of butterflies, should not be harmed.” Undoubtedly there are some casualties among the slower-moving creatures in places where the fire is in full flame or burns hot, but most wildlife is mobile enough to flee the most dangerous areas, and loss to overall populations should be minimal. This Spicebush Swallowtail (below) did not seem to be bothered by the smoke.

That is not the case, though, with the plant life. Until the 2008 fire, the Great Dismal Swamp was home to the largest population of the endangered Atlantic White Cedar trees (not the same as the common Red Cedars). After that fire, Fish and Wildlife teamed up with Christopher Newport University to replant 230,000 seedlings. All of those seedlings have been destroyed in the current fire. That makes me very sad, not only for the irreplaceable loss of the trees, but for the wildlife species that are biologically bound to these trees, like the rare Hessel’s Hairstreak butterfly (photo courtesy of www.duke.edu and Jeffrey Pippen). I have never seen one, and am not likely to away from the remaining stands of Atlantic White Cedars.

Everyone keeps saying that we need a good hurricane to extinguish this fire. I don’t care to go through another hurricane, so I don’t know which catastrophic natural event to pull for! I’ll just have to be reassured in the knowledge that Mother Nature is in charge and it’s her world; we’re just here for the short ride.


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