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PHOTO: What does a peat fire look like from space? See North Carolina, before and after

Holly Shelter Game Land, North Carolina. “The peat goes on”

The Holly Shelter Game Land in North Carolina is a protected area part of the North Carolina Trust. It runs along the upper reaches of Shelter Creek and helps to defend water quality and wildlife of the Northeast Cape Fear River watershed. 

This summer, it caught fire.

As the USGS writes: “Left: June 19, 2011. Right: July 21, 2011. Lightning sparked a fire here on June 19 and hot, dry conditions helped fuel the fast ignition of over 21,000 acres of thick evergreen shrubs and flammable coal-like soil. The fire continues to burn as of August 30, according to the North Carolina Forest Service, and lingering drought has hampered efforts to put out the blaze. Because the fire is burning in peat soil, it will likely continue to produce smoke until extinguished by a soaking rain. The image on the right shows fire scars in brown, active fires in red, and smoke in light blue.”

Peat fires are not uncommon to North Carolina. The area’s coastal plain region has around 500 square miles of peat that can be 15 feet thick in some places. Peat is partially decomposed plant matter found in wetlands. Highly flammable, it is the first step in the several million year process it takes to form coal. As state firefighter Gary Mease told National Geographic, “Think of it as one giant charcoal briquette. It will ignite and [the fire will] sink into the soil.”

And you can see here, that’s exactly what it did.

Images taken by the Thematic Mapper sensor aboard Landsat 5. Courtesy of USGS Landsat Missions Gallery, U.S. Department of the Interior /U.S. Geological Survey

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