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Second Fire Blackens Hampstead Woods

A forest service helicopter dumps water on the Hampstead blaze.

By Megan V. Williams

Wilmington, NC – The fire started around 2 o'clock Wednesday afternoon, blackening 225 acres of pines and forcing the evacuation of roughly 20 homes before fire crews began to get control.

Strong winds out of the southwest drove embers across the containment lines in numerous places while helicopters and airplanes dropped water and fire retardant from the sky and several fire departments churned up the sandy soil in long firebreaks called 'potato patches.'

North Carolina Forest Ranger Ned Berg says a spark from construction equipment building a new water tower is the fire's prime suspect.

These same woods burned 21 years ago in the major Topsail Fire. Standing on Buckshot Road, with ash falling in his hair, Pender County Ranger Leon Craft remembered fighting that fire. He says the region's growing population makes it much harder now.

The general public wants "to buy a little piece of land, get back in the woods," he said, "and it's making our job a lot harder because of all these homes that are in and around in these woods now."

None of the homes threatened by yesterday's fire were damaged and there were no reports of injuries.

Wednesday's fire started roughly nine miles north of Monday's major blaze, which officials are calling the Sidbury Development Fire.

Berg says flames are mostly out but crews expect to keep working on the site until at least this weekend, with mop-up activity continuing until the region gets its next soaking rain.

The fire's biggest risk at this point, according to Berg, is that organic material may still be burning underground, with the potential to ignite new fires in the future.

Berg describes these hot spots as resembling a charcoal grill, "it doesn't really burn a flame, but you know there's some heat there."

The Forestry service does not consider Pender a 'high-hazard' county for fires, meaning burn permits are only required during the hottest hours of the day and fires do not require additional ground clearing permits.

Berg says computer glitches have slowed down calculations for an initial estimate of the fire's cost. Forestry Law Enforcement officers are still investigating any possible blame for the blaze.