Fires Ashore

By Tom Neale, 8/18/2011


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What can a forest fire have to do with cruising? A lot.

A few years ago we were cruising in North Carolina, heading north on our spring trip up the east coast. We turned on the TV to get the news one evening. We’ve found that even out in paradise it’s wise to check in to see what’s going on at the opposite end of the spectrum---on land. You never know how land news can affect you. What we saw that night made us feel very lucky. Forest fires were raging in South Carolina. They were out of control because the weather had been very dry. They were well west of the ICW but heading eastward, driven by the strong dry westerly wind. They were heading toward the general Myrtle Beach area, and that long thin strip of ICW between Little River and the Waccamaw River. In recent years much land has been cleared there, along the ICW, and many houses have been built (or started and stopped).

Hobe Sound Fire
This fire raged on, ravaging all in its path, racing toward the ICW. Visibility in the ICW quickly diminished to very low, as we heard in reports from boaters attempting to pass through the area. You can skirt this area on the trip north by going offshore, but not very well as an afterthought. It has to be planned. You can, for example, go out of the desolate but deep inlet of Winyah Bay and come in the much shallower but somewhat tricky inlet at Little River, or the much deeper big ship inlet at the Cape Fear River to the north of that. You can, of course, make longer cruises offshore using other inlets. But the Winyah Bay Inlet is far off the ICW and once you get into the upper reaches of Winyah Bay and then the Waccamaw River, it takes a very long time to go back to the inlet, even if the very strong current is running with you part of the time. And then you need good weather. Some boats stopped in the Waccama River to wait, but others were racing to beat the fire and get through that stretch. Then the Coast Guard closed the ICW, fearing people would be hurt or killed as the flames leaped over the ditch, which was felt to be quite likely. The ICW remained closed for several days and fortunately the flames didn’t leap the ditch and no one on the boats was hurt. But in the interim, we were feeling very lucky, making way up in North Carolina, that we’d gotten through the area before all the trouble.

A few years prior to that there were serious fires in northeast Florida during the time we were heading up the coast. We knew about them and headed offshore, thinking we’d avoid any problems from them. Not so. Three to five miles offshore, in the vicinity of the St. Johns River shipping lanes, smoke from those fires settled on the sea so thickly that we had only around half mile visibility or less. This isn’t much in an area where very large ships are moving at relatively fast speeds. We didn’t get burned but we were approached dangerously closely (in my opinion) by a warship which didn’t show up on our radar. (Some are built like this, and from what we’ve seen they do a good job.)

On another occasion we were even less lucky—or so it seemed for a time. We were heading south and had cleared the “Crossroads” inside St. Lucie inlet. Night was coming on and we were racing to find an anchorage in Hobe Sound. You have to get a bridge to open before you enter Hobe Sound from the north and the bridge tender was helpful, letting us through before dark. We were smelling smoke very strongly, and asked him if he knew where it was coming from. He told us that he heard there was a controlled brush fire in a reserve area nearby; that local officials did this occasionally to help lessen the likelihood of runaway fires. We proceeded on into Hobe Sound where we could see the orange glow of large fires to the south, on the western side of the Sound. It was too late to proceed on, unless we wanted to do the next stretch in the dark. We didn’t, because it would involve some very tricky maneuvering inside Jupiter Inlet. Also, we didn’t like what we were seeing ashore. The wind was blowing from the west—not good—but it had a definite northerly slant to it. So we anchored well to the north of the engulfed area, thinking we were OK. We sat on deck and watched as billowing flames approached the sound and the “millionaire” houses there.

We turned on the news, and found that we were near the center of attention of the local broadcasts. They were saying that the crews who set the fire had essentially blown it and that the fires had gotten out of control. About this time, the winds died a bit and then shifted a little to the southwest. Large pieces of flaming debris were being blown ahead of the fire, igniting whatever they fell upon. Mansions were being evacuated. We knew that if the fire continued approaching and if the wind continued as it was, we could well be ignited ourselves, or at least consumed with choking smoke. At this point it was well after dark and we’d have a very difficult time heading back north because of the then treacherous “Crossroads.” We sat it out, hoping the winds would shift back to a northerly slant, hoping the “officials” who had started the mess could get a handle on it. We were ready to pull anchor quickly or, if necessary, to abandon ship for the dinghy and speed north. We were lucky. The winds died and shifted and the fire fighters ashore got the fires under control before they reached the mansions…. and, incidentally, the shores off which we were anchored.

Tom’s Tips About Keeping Up With Shore News

1. With new HD TV and a mast top antenna that’ll bring it in, we’ve found that it’s much easier to get good news and other info from land based TV stations as we travel up and down the coast. And we get many more stations.

2. We’ve even found that we seldom plug in to cable when we tie at a marina, because we seldom need to with the new HD services.

Click Here for More Tips

As I write this, a fire has been burning for days in the Great Dismal Swamp. When fires burn in swampy or boggy areas they may burn for months. It’s very hard to put them out short of rainfall from tropical storms because much of the combustion is in the plant material in or close to the ground. Fires like this and others I’ve described are often started by lightning. It’s been going on for millions of years. It’s one way nature prunes itself. It’ll continue to happen. But this is of small consolation to you and me if we happen to be in the area.

The smoke from this fire has extended over much of northeast North Carolina and far up into Virginia. It comes and goes as the winds change, but it’s always somewhere. The smoke and fires are so dangerous that a bridge crossing the Dismal Swamp Canal has been closed to maritime traffic, thus making that Alternate ICW Route impassable. This is a beautiful route, somewhat paralleling the Virginia Cut which is the main route of the ICW in this area. Many boats use the Dismal Swamp Canal simply for the beauty and experience of it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the main ICW closed if the fire continues to spread eastward. That would force boats to wait while they can (hopefully none would wait in a perilous area) or go outside. The problem with the latter is that means backtracking a very long distance down to Morehead City and then going around Cape Hatteras. This isn’t an option for most boats except fast ones and in good weather. Skippers of all vessels transiting this area, or planning to transit this area, are well advised to stay tuned to local news and broadcasts of Local Notices to Mariners.

Out in the boat I like to feel that there’s a nice comfortable moat around me, protecting me from the shore. But unfortunately, it isn’t necessarily so. Many times over the years, we’ve found that even out here we need to keep in touch with what’s going on ashore.

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