Lt. Candler Thornton of the Knightdale Fire Department learned the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 12, that he would be deploying to fight a wildfire in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Thornton had about two hours to get ready. Then he joined another Knightdale firefighter and three from the Eastern Wake Fire Department for the drive to Lake Lure, 30 miles southeast of Asheville. The five-man team and an Eastern Wake engine arrived at the Lake Lure command post for a briefing about 1 a.m. Sunday.
The Knightdale-Eastern Wake team were among dozens of firefighters from the Triangle who joined colleagues from around the state in the battle against one of the largest wildfires burning through a mountainous region suffering from a prolonged drought. They went in response to a request from the N.C. State Emergency Operations Center for 100 engine companies and brush trucks to fight the Lake Lure fire, which threatens the village of Chimney Rock and surrounding homes and cottages.
“These fires continue to threaten homes and businesses in the western part of our state, as well as the safety of the people who call that area home,” Wake County Fire Services Director Nick Campasano said in a statement Tuesday. “Wake County is actively doing its part to help our colleagues get these fires under control.”
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Forty-one firefighters from 13 fire departments in Wake County have gone to Lake Lure, said Darrell Alford, the deputy director and chief of operations for Wake County Fire Services. They took with them five fire engines, 10 brush trucks and one support vehicle, Alford said. Those who deployed are a mixture of volunteer and professional firefighters.
“It bodes well for Wake County in supporting our neighbors to the west,” Alford said. “It shows we are the capital county and we just responded well to the call. It shows a good brotherhood helping out neighbors.”
Like others from Wake County, Thornton, Knightdale’s Evan Guinn and Eastern Wake Fire Department’s Capt. Brian Bunn, Henry Stubblefield and Matt Toler are scheduled to be deployed for seven days. They spent Sunday and Monday clearing brush and debris around homes in the Broad River area in case the fire switches directions.
Officials said Monday that the fire was more than 3,400 acres in size and 15 percent contained, and that calm weather had reduced its spread.
“Coming from my end, I do feel like it’s getting better,” Thornton said Tuesday. “Visibility has been bad – today it’s much better. It’s easier to breathe, and temperatures feel pretty good.”
By Wednesday, however, an N.C. Forest Service update showed the fire had grown to 4,480 acres, while containment had increased to 19 percent.
The Wendell department sent Lt. David Landphere and firefighter James Montague in a brush truck. Zebulon also sent two firefighters in a brush truck, Caleb Creech and Colby Stepp.
“It’s really like nothing we’ve done before,” Stepp said Tuesday. “As a firefighter in Zebulon, we show up to a fire and we put it out. Here, it’s different. They fight fire with fire by doing burnouts – burning everything toward the wildfire.”
The work early in the week for Stepp and his crew was keeping the fire from reaching homes in the area, and helping the Forest Service control the burnout by night.
A local construction business owner allowed Stepp and several others to set up cots inside the business to sleep during the day.
“We spend most of our days sleeping, preparing for the next night of work,” Stepp said. “The little bit we are awake, you can look at the crest of the mountain and see the flames from the fire and the smoke covers everything. Our first day here, waiting in line to get supper, we had ashes and embers falling on us from one of the fires nearby.”
About 15 wildfires have burned about 45,000 acres in the western third of the state since Oct. 23, according to state officials. Alford said that because the wildfires have been declared a disaster by the federal government, departments that send firefighters will be reimbursed.
The fires have been fueled by unseasonably warm and dry weather in the mountain region, something the Forest Service had warned about for weeks up to the time they began.
One fire has been attributed to lightning, while humans – whether carelessly or intentionally – are believed to be the cause of the others.
Emergency officials sent out a statewide notice Monday asking fire departments to consider their resources in case a second, seven-day deployment wave was needed.
“I have talked with (Garner Fire Chief) Matt (Poole) and they are looking to maybe help us out if additional equipment is needed later in the week,” Alford said Tuesday.
Alford said the Wake County crews would likely switch out personnel and leave their equipment in the mountains for the next wave of firefighters to use.
Rachel Chason: 919-829-4629
Wake County fire departments have sent 41 firefighters to the mountains to help fight wildfires that have been burning since last month. The departments are: Apex, Bay Leaf, Cary, Durham Highway, Eastern Wake, Holly Springs, Knightdale, Morrisville, Stony Hill Rural, Wake Forest, Wendell, Western Wake and Zebulon.