Hampstead, NC – Just before sunset two planes circled the smoldering woods outside of Hampstead, as air tankers carrying hundreds of gallons of water cruised just over the heads of exhausted firefighters gathered at a makeshift camp.
Six hours after initial reports of a blaze in the woods off highway 210, the biggest wildfire in years was mostly under control.
Pender County Emergency Management Director Eddie King said Monday's fire started off as a controlled burn conducted by a construction company. But around 3 o'clock flames jumped the containment lines, roaring from a 15-acre fire to a 1,500-acre fire in a matter of hours. All told, nearly two square miles burned yesterday.
According to King, firefighters are facing difficult conditions if the dry, windy weather continues. Another day like Monday and King says, "we may be in the same situation where we are evacuating people in other areas"
Teresa Odom with the state's Forest Resources Division says it could be days before the fire is entirely doused.
"Right now, everything is focused on life and property and containing the fires and not losing anything. And after all that's over with, then we will go back and start the law enforcement actions and see what happens from there."
Any investigation of the fire will fall to the Division of Forest Resources and the sheriffs department. Officials on the scene Monday said they weren't ready to talk about blame.
King says around 18 fire departments and about six tractor plow units responded to the fire. He says so far one structure that may have been a barn or an abandoned house is confirmed destroyed by the fire.
Nearly 40 homes on Harrison Creek road were evacuated at the height of the blaze, but residents were allowed back in around eight o'clock Monday night.
On resident across the street from the operation's makeshift camp says she heard about the fire from a co-worker.
"It's scary," Linda Scott said, "I think of Los Angeles, California, and the fires surrounding the area and I say 'Oh my God, this is close to home, this is really, really too close.'"
Scott said she's glad her husband warned her of the dozens of fire trucks parked across the street from her home. That field last night was a maze of massive machines, floodlights, and buzzing generators.
As some firefighters ate a dinner of donated pizza, others gathered around a beat-up cardboard box, taking gentle care of five tiny kittens rescued from the path of the blaze.
Surf City Firefighter Margaret Smith said she say a lot of smoke and fire while her crew did a little bit of everything to work on the blaze. "Just worried about all the people out there, you know?" Smith said of her thoughts, "not really knowing what's going on."
Steve Barnett, assistant fire chief for the Wrightsboro Fire Department, said, after a day stationed away from the front lines, his company would stay on hand to see where they'd be needed next.
"This is the biggest woods fire we've had in a while," he said, "but the way the weather is, I don't think it's going to be the last."