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Accidents will happen

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You could call it a case of "friendly fire": Last week, 2,600 acres of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County, near the town of Manteo, went up in smoke. The blaze was touched off on the afternoon of May 11 when a fighter pilot from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro dropped a training bomb in the wrong spot.

The wildfire burned for four days, and it took several bulldozers, two helicopters, six air tankers and nearly 100 firefighters--along with a little help from rain clouds--to contain it. The N.C. Division of Forest Resources officially named it "First Fire," as it was the first major blaze of the state's summer fire season. But it's hardly the first time military training has set Dare County aflame, and given recent shifts in military training locations, this blaze is bound to be followed by similar conflagrations.

The Dare County Bomb Range, in use by the Air Force and Navy since 1965, is one of the more unique training sites in the military's arsenal. Two target areas on the range absorb thousands of training sorties every year, as pilots and gunners fire bullets and dummy bombs into the ground. At the same time, somewhat incongruously, a cornucopia of plant and animal life has thrived on the 152,000-acre wildlife refuge, which completely surrounds the bombsites. Conservationists have used the refuge to replenish the state's populations of two endangered species, the red wolf and the red-cockaded woodpecker. And the thick groves of pine trees have served as the pride and promise of many a forestry researcher.

The trees, however, have also proven to be a combustible fuel for wildfires. The range no longer hosts live ordnance training, as it did in its early years. Back then, the risks of fire were even greater. In March of 1971, for example, a bomb dropped by an Air Force trainee set off a rampaging fire that consumed 29,300 acres in just four days. The fire ran 14 miles in one direction before a change in the weather sent it six miles on another course. At one point, the flames came within 100 yards of the small town of Stumpy Point.

The most recent fire was meager by comparison, and while it ran close to one house and for a time forced the closing of a major road, U.S. 264, there were no reported injuries or property damage.

Still, the "First Fire" should serve as a cautionary tale, because the tempo of training at North Carolina's bomb ranges is on the rise following the Defense Department's recent withdrawal from Vieques, Puerto Rico, a small island that was the military's main ordnance training ground for decades. Now, military officials say, they will have to rely on target ranges in the continental United States, especially those in Florida and North Carolina. On May 6, for example, the Marines began a new series of live-fire exercises. From a ship offshore, they lobbed explosive shells over the intracoastal waterway--and through civilian airspace--into a land target at Camp Lejeune.

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