At least 80 major wildfires are burning across the Southeast, including 18 in the North Carolina mountains that are forcing people from their homes, filling the air with smoke and ash, and lighting up the nights with what one resident calls a volcanic glow.
Fire has scorched more than 20,000 acres in the western part of the state since Oct. 23, the flames fed by trees, leaves and understory that are dry as kindling because of severe drought in the region. Fire officials are stretched thin by what they say is a historic outbreak, and while they don’t know the causes of all the fires, they are investigating some as possible arson.
“It’s bad up here,” said Kevin Kussow, who runs Three Eagles Outfitters in Franklin, the Macon County seat, which is nearly surrounded by fires burning the Nantahala National Forest. “You wake up in the morning, and there’s just a little dew, so the ashes just stick to your car. And then depending on which way the wind is blowing, the smoke gets really thick. Right now, we’re pretty socked in. It’s tough to breathe. Everybody is walking around coughing. At night, it looks like volcanoes are erupting.”
As of late Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service said that more than 565 firefighters and support staff from more than 40 states and territories were trying to suppress 18 fires in North Carolina.
Joe Mazzeo, a Forest Service fire information officer brought in from his home district in Boston, Mass., to help, said there had been only minor injuries as a result of the fires, and no homes had been damaged. As a precaution, residents have been evacuated from certain areas near some fires. The Party Rock fire, which is close to the town of Lake Lure, prompted some evacuations as high winds spread the flames on Wednesday. By late Thursday, the Party Rock fire had expanded to 885 acres and was 15 percent contained.
Right now, we’re pretty socked in. It’s tough to breathe. Everybody is walking around coughing. At night, it looks like volcanoes are erupting.
Kevin Kussow, who runs Three Eagles Outfitters in Franklin
Two state parks – Chimney Rock, which is near Lake Lure, and South Mountains, south of Morganton – have been closed. Sections of the Appalachian Trail through the area are closed, and Gov. Pat McCrory has declared an emergency in the area, allowing officials to ban all outdoor burning.
Charlie Peek, spokesman for N.C. State Parks, said the Party Rock fire was not directly affecting Chimney Rock State Park, but that fire officials asked the park to close to reduce traffic congestion in the Village of Chimney Rock, adjacent to Lake Lure.
Peek said a fire burning within South Mountains State Park had grown Thursday to 400 acres.
Mazzeo said the Boteler Fire started on Boteler Peak, about 15 miles east of Murphy, on Oct. 31 with a lightning strike. It has now grown to more than 3,500 ares and suppression efforts have so far cost more than $2.7 million.
The causes of other fires are not yet known, but are believed to be from human action. The Forest Service says that in North Carolina, the leading cause of wildland fires is careless debris burning, where a fire gets out of hand and spreads, or sends spark or ash flying to ignite another fire. The second leading cause of wildfires in the state, Forest Service researchers say, is arson.
According to a press release on Thursday, investigators are looking into nearly all the fires now burning in the western part of the state as possible arson. All those being battled now started since Oct. 28. The two largest, as of Thursday evening, were the 5,160-acre Tellico fire, three miles south of the town of Almond, and the 5,083-acre Maple Springs fire, north of Santeetlah Lake.
Mazzeo said it’s difficult and dangerous for firefighters to make direct assaults on fires in heavily wooded mountains. Wind-born sparks can start new fires that get behind firefighters and send flames uphill, trapping them; fire-damaged trees can drop on fire crews, and burning logs can roll downhill onto them.
Mazzeo says crews have been relying largely on trying to contain fires by digging lines around them, using heavy equipment where they can and hand tools where machines can’t go. By digging a line around a fire, taking away its fuel, crews can often stop the fire’s progress.
That hasn’t always worked against these fires, Mazzeo said.
“It’s so dry, and the leaves continue to fall,” he said. “The crews have built fire lines, and then they have to go out and maintain those lines with leaf blowers, or the leaves just cover the ground and create a bed of new fuel. It’s very manpower-intense.”
Crews also are using available aircraft to drop fire retardant on areas ahead of some of the fires, and water on the flames.
“What we really need,” said Peter O’Leary, mayor of the Village of Chimney Rock, “is some rain.”
There is no more than a 30 percent chance of rain forecast for the area in the coming days.
For more information on individual fires burning in the Nantahala National Forest, go to http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/unit/3056/. To learn how to prevent wildfires, go to https://smokeybear.com/en. To report suspicious activity, contact local law enforcement.