More than 60 Wake County firefighters raced west Friday to help combat the blaze in Lake Lure, the worst in a string of wildfires that has consumed more than 45,000 acres across the North Carolina mountains.
As the volunteers packed into a bus, carrying sleeping bags and backpacks, wildfire smoke drifted into downtown Raleigh, clouding the skyline. Firefighters from Raleigh, Cary, Garner and many other departments prepared to work 12-hour shifts until at least Wednesday and possibly through Thanksgiving.
“We have to help,” said Cameron Dupree, 23, of the Garner department. “We’re firefighters just as much in the mountains as we are here. We’ve got to help our brothers.”
The firefighters who set out on Friday join 43 more who left Wake earlier this week, taking five fire engines and 10 brush trucks. A mix of professionals and volunteers, they will aid more than 5,000 personnel already working to control fires from Western North Carolina to Northern Georgia.
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“It’s a different wildfire than we fight here, which is more of an urban thing,” said Darrell Alford, deputy director of Wake County Fire Services. “Not many of them have fought the kind of fire they’re going to see in the mountains.”
It’s a different wildfire than we fight here, which is more of an urban thing. Not many of them have fought the kind of fire they’re going to see in the mountains.
Darrell Alford, deputy director of Wake County Fire Services
Persistent drought in the mountain counties is fueling the fires, but state officials suspect arson in many spots now burning. Gov. Pat McCrory has offered a $10,000 reward for information. The Party Rock Fire at Lake Lure remains the No. 2 priority fire in the nation, officials said, forcing evacuations in Rutherford and Henderson counties. One shelter is open in Henderson County.
Most of the volunteers from Wake have never experienced a wildfire before, and Alford offered a prayer before they boarded their bus: “We’re so thankful for each of the firefighters that are here to help others in the western part of the state. Lord, please keep them safe and, Lord, please help them get back to us the same way that they left.”
Firefighters arriving from Wake on Friday will aid in preventing structure fires, Alford said. They will contend with blazes that spread faster traveling up slopes, and will clear leaves and other debris away from buildings, wetting down areas to slow the wildfire’s growth. Much of their work must be learned on the job.
They will also contend with wind that is expected to reach 35 mph Saturday, gusting up to 50 mph. Dry weather is expected through the middle of next week, and almost half of North Carolina is now classified as abnormally dry or in a drought.
“We didn’t know what to pack,” said George Gerraty of the Fuquay-Varina department. “Just whatever we could to stay warm. Extra socks and stuff.”
Many of the Wake volunteers found out about their duty in Lake Lure only 12 hours before heading out. Fighting structure fires is what they’re trained to do, said Searcy Howard of the Raleigh department, but the desire to learn more made a powerful draw.
“This may be a once-in-a-career event,” said Steve Newton, team leader with Wake County Emergency Management. “We hope so. Be safe. As long as you can do it safely, take pictures.”
Another hazy day
Smoke from the wildfires is expected to linger over the Triangle for another day Saturday, before a cold front sweeps in and pushes it away. State air quality forecasters have issued another Code Orange for the region Saturday, and urged that children, active people, older adults and those with heart or lung disease such as asthma limit prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.