Beaufort News

Smoke wafting into Lowcountry from southern wildfires may linger today

Smoke that settled over much of Beaufort County and other coastal counties Sunday and Monday might have come from at least two wildfires in southeast Georgia and others burning in northeast Florida.

And it might be around for at least another day.

Emergency management officials and National Weather Service meteorologists on Monday gave differing explanations for the haze that set in. Meanwhile, local authorities are cautioning those with respiratory ailments to limit time outdoors until the smoke clears.

S.C. Deputy Forester Joe Felder said state forestry officials believe most of the smoke had drifted east from a fire across 248 square miles at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near the Georgia-Florida line.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service, however, said the haze was being carried up the coast by winds from northeast Florida, where several fires are burning.

On Sunday afternoon, about 60 fires were burning about 3,000 acres of forest in Florida's St. Johns and Flagler counties. Twenty more burned in Duval, Nassau and Clay counties; seven in the Lake City area; and 46 in the Gainesville area, The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union reported Monday.

The Town of Hilton Head Island's emergency management coordinator, Paul Rasch Jr., said the Okefenokee Swamp fire and a large fire Sunday near Keller, Ga., that was still smoldering, likely contributed to the smoke in Beaufort County.

"None of these pose a threat to us, but we will receive smoke from these fires for an undetermined period due to the existing weather conditions," Rasch said in a news release.

Julie Packett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston, said blowing sea breezes could keep the smoke around for at least another day.

"The sea breeze is pushing the smoke back inland," she said. "We'll probably see onshore winds increase in the afternoon to about 15 knots, so there's some potential to see more smoke and reduced visibility into the evening hours."

The smoke, along with a chance of thunderstorms Monday afternoon, prompted officials at Bluffton High School to consider moving that night's graduation ceremony inside. But as the weather improved, the ceremony went on as planned outside.

Hilton Head Island High School principal Amanda O'Nan said officials will decide at 4 p.m. today whether the school's graduation ceremony at 7 p.m. tonight will be moved inside because of weather and air quality.

At least two area fire departments say they were inundated with calls Monday from people who wanted information about the smoke.

Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division spokeswoman Joheida Fister said emergency dispatchers received several calls Sunday and Monday from residents reporting smoke. Capt. Randy Hunter, Bluffton Township Fire District spokesman, said residents should not call the department to inquire about the smoke, and call 911 only if they can see a fire or have one of their own to report. He advised residents with respiratory problems to take caution during outdoor activities.

Dr. Thomas Beller, an allergist in Beaufort, said residents with any type of airway inflammation -- such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma -- will be more susceptible to irritation.

"The more serious your respiratory problem, the more severe the reaction to smoke," Beller said. "If someone notices their respiratory infection is being irritated, I suggest they stay indoors. The bigger the exposure, the greater the symptoms."

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