Fire threatens Dismal Swamp Atlantic white cedar ecosystem
The legacy of George Washington's centuries-old logging venture in the Great Dismal Swamp is contributing to the possible demise of a valuable ecosystem as a barely contained fire burns on the Virginia-North Carolina border, experts say.
As of late Sunday the brush fire had burned 6,156 acres and was probably ignited by a lightning strike on or around August 4, officials said.
Feeding largely on carbon-rich peat, the fire is sending smoke as far as Annapolis, Maryland -- four hours by car -- and causing respiratory health concerns among the nearby Hampton Roads population of 1.5 million.
Officials said the fire is being battled by 385 firefighters and is 10 percent contained, as it burns within the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and North Carolina's Dismal Swamp State Park.
In the firing line, according to Christopher Newport University's Center for Wetland Conservation director Rob Atkinson, is Atlantic white cedar.
Also known as juniper, cedar or Chamaecyparis thyoides, the threatened ecosystem's largest U.S. stands were in the Great Dismal Swamp, where they have been in decline for 100 years, Atkinson said.
He and his team of research students began replanting cedars and studying the results after the refuge's last pure stand, 3,000 acres, was decimated by Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and burned out during another fire in 2008.
"We had nearly completed the second year measurements when the fire precluded our access and then burned our study plots," Atkinson said.
Atlantic White Cedar occurs from Maine to Mississippi. With a high carbon content, it reduces greenhouse gasses "probably more than any other ecosystem in North America," Atkinson said.
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service