There is no getting away from the smoke.
It seeps into the cabs of the big trucks that idle at Morse Park, the staging area for more than 900 people fighting the Party Rock Fire. It hovers in the dining tent where the Baptist volunteers load plates with double servings of pork chops for the men and women who shuffle in, exhausted. It gathers under the cut-glass chandelier in the lobby of the Lake Lure Inn, a refuge for some whose homes might be in the path of flames.
It burns the eyes, the nose, the throat, and it whispers: There is fire out there, all over those mountains, that is growing by the hour.
Two weeks after it started, or more likely, was started, the Party Rock Fire has covered 7,171 acres of wooded Rutherford, Henderson and Buncombe counties, including sections of Chimney Rock State Park. Though it threatens the most structures – 1,050 in the towns of Lake Lure and Chimney Rock – it isn’t even the biggest blaze now on U.S. Forest Service maps of Western North Carolina.
The Tellico Fire, near the town of Almond, is nearly twice as large. The Boteler Fire, near Hayesville, is more than 9,000 acres; the Maple Springs Fire, north of Santeetlah Lake, is nearly 8,000 acres. And there are others, including the Chestnut Knob Fire that has burned more than 6,300 acres within South Mountain State Park south of Morganton.
At least a dozen wildfires are burning in Western North Carolina, feeding on hardwood trees, rhododendron and dormant kudzu parched brittle as matchsticks by one of the region’s driest autumns on record. Fire is destroying timber and wildlife habitat in the Nantahala National Forest and on Cherokee tribal lands. It is forcing residents from their homes and shutting down businesses during what ought to be a healthy tourism season. It is sending asthmatics to emergency departments with breathing problems. It has prompted the costly mobilization of an army of some 2,500 professional and volunteer firefighters and staff who are working around the clock, and has inspired some communities to support them as if they were sons and daughters going into battle.
Crews from 40 states
“You want to help. That’s what it comes down to,” said James Van Fossen, 45, a self-employed tile-layer and a member of Dicks Creek Volunteer Fire Department, just outside Lake Lure. The 43-member department was one of many that responded the afternoon of Nov. 5, when the Party Rock Fire started, and its crews and equipment have been on the job ever since.
Van Fossen, tall and thin even in bulky gear, worked a full day Wednesday before reporting to the station for a night on the fires.
You don’t put out a fire like this. You contain it.
Jim Schwarber, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service brought in from Fairbanks, Alaska
The work of fighting each fire is directed by a particular agency, depending on whose land it started on. If it was state land, the N.C. Forest Service oversees operations. On federal land, the U.S. Forest Service leads. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee tribe has help from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Through mutual-aid agreements in place for such emergencies, lead agencies request the manpower and equipment they need, and departments across the state offer what they have to match. As the fire grows, so does the area from which resources are drawn.
The Party Rock Fire has crews from across North Carolina, including Wake, Durham and Orange counties, and from at least 40 other states.
The fire began on an outcropping inside Chimney Rock State Park reached by a former logging road. Though it’s not a maintained trail and the park discourages its use, hiking enthusiasts can find detailed directions on how to access the summit by trespassing on private property and walking 2.4 miles over loose rock and vulnerable plants, through gullies and up steep inclines. The reward, one website says, is a 180-degree vista, “By far the best view of Lake Lure anywhere.”
If hiking on such topography is challenging, extinguishing a fire on it is nearly impossible.
In fact, “You don’t put out a fire like this,” said Jim Schwarber, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service brought in from Fairbanks, Alaska, to help. “You contain it.”
Schwarber works out of a tent set up at the fire’s command center, a portable town-within-a-town that has risen on the lush grounds of Morse Park, the centerpiece of the town of Lake Lure, which is about 230 miles west of Raleigh. The park is named for Dr. Lucius Morse, who came to the area in the early 1900s as many wealthy northerners did at the time, seeking fresh, pure air as a remedy for tuberculosis. He was instrumental in damming the Rocky Broad River to create Lake Lure in 1926, and immediately built the Lake Lure Inn to house guests who came to enjoy the lake and the mountains that rise around it.
The town and its immediate neighbor, the Village of Chimney Rock, together have fewer than 1,500 year-round residents, but bustle with tourists who come for golf, fishing, hiking, skiing and to view the changing foliage.
Where we come from, it’s all flat land and swamp.
William George, a 16-year veteran of New Hanover County Fire Rescue
The setting, which has served as the backdrop for several movies, most notably 1987’s “Dirty Dancing,” is now dominated by the fire camp, the hub for 920 firefighters and support staff. They’re on for 12-hour shifts, one starting at 7 a.m., the other at 7 p.m. But many end up working 16 hours at a time.
It’s long days and long nights, but you won’t hear them complaining.
Many sleep here, in their own colorful pup tents or heated and cooled group tents, with ear plugs or headphones to block out the noise of generators, rumbling diesel engines, beeping back-up alarms on trucks, and workplace conversations. They have access to showers, washing machines and dryers, and three meals a day, served by rotating crews of hired caterers or volunteer groups that run disaster-relief kitchens.
“Good morning, everyone,” Gordon Deno, the night-shift safety officer, said to a group of least 80 firefighters gathered for their briefing before heading out from the camp last week. The group included crews who already had been away from their homes and families for a week, and some new arrivals. Deno reminded them of possible hazards: steep drop-offs, falling timber, burning logs that roll downhill. “And don’t forget about the wildlife. We’ve had a couple of encounters with bobcats and bears.” As he spoke, ridge lines miles away glowed with orange flames, the pockets of fire strung out like a bead necklace trailing down the slopes.
Some of the fires burning in the state are confined to remote wooded areas and, for now anyway, menace relatively few homes and businesses. The Party Rock Fire is different, burning close enough to Lake Lure, Chimney Rock and developments such as the Rumbling Bald golf resort that evacuation orders are issued and lifted as conditions change. With so many structures threatened, firefighting crews are almost evenly divided; half on each shift fight the fire and half guard the homes and businesses most endangered by wind-blown sparks and traveling flames.
It’s good experience for crews from areas such as rural Eastern North Carolina, where fire can burn deep into loamy soils, and the more urbanized Piedmont, where a fire hydrant is never far away.
On mountain wildfires, water has to be hauled in on tanker trucks or dropped from helicopters, and the most effective tools are shovels and leaf blowers, used to dig perimeter lines and remove fuel the fire could use to spread.
“It’s an opportunity to do something different,” William George, a 16-year veteran of New Hanover County Fire Rescue, said Thursday morning as he came off the night shift. “Where we come from, it’s all flat land and swamp.”
Fighting fire with food
Locals residents are deeply invested in the effort. In addition to the hundreds who serve on volunteer fire departments, there are hundreds more who fight fire with food.
At the Broad River Volunteer Fire Department’s Shumont Road station, “They’re cooking all day,” said Reed Murphy, who helped launch the department in 1975 and, at age 68, was still responding to calls until a recent shoulder surgery.
Murphy’s wife, Lois, is among the cooks preparing lunch, dinner and big country breakfasts with homemade biscuits and gravy that help sustain the volunteer crews who don’t spend time at the government camp.
Residents monitor the news, check websites for updates on the fire, shifting winds, road closures and reopenings. The town of Lake Lure and others use Facebook to announce needs and issue thanks. When last week’s record warmth was followed by this weekend’s cold front, with its 40-plus-mph winds, a call went out for wicking wool socks that would keep firefighters’ feet warm while warding off blisters. Five hundred pairs were delivered to the camp within hours.
To the degree it can, life goes on as always under the gray haze of smoke and ash. Two weddings were held as planned in Lake Lure this weekend, along with Saturday’s turkey-dinner fundraiser at Dicks Creek VFD, which needs $1.5 million to build a new firehouse. Thursday’s elaborate reservation-only Thanksgiving Day buffet at the Lake Lure Inn is nearly sold out.
But the fire is never far out of mind, and those who can’t contribute directly to what is now expected to be a months-long effort are urged to do what they can.
The roadside marquee at Dicks Creek Baptist Church gives the plainest admonishment. It says simply, in all capital letters: PRAY FOR RAIN.
How to help
Fire departments say they have specific needs and ask that donations be dropped off at specific county sites.
Here’s what is needed:
▪ snacks like beef jerky, trail mix, protein bars and breakfast bars (it helps to take them out of boxes and just dump in a bag)
▪ lip balm
▪ eye wash
▪ wool caps/toboggans
▪ boot socks
▪ travel-size hand wipes
▪ travel-size hand lotion
▪ travel-size Gold Bond foot powder
▪ handwarmer gloves
▪ Buncombe County: Fairview Fire Department 828-628-2001
▪ Burke County: Fire Information Hot Line 828-764-9380
▪ Clay County: Office of Emergency Management 828-389-9640
▪ Cherokee County: Office of Emergency Management 828-837-7352
▪ Graham County: Office of Emergency Management 828-479-7967
▪ Henderson County: Mud Creek Baptist Church, 403 Rutledge Drive, Hendersonville. Drop-off hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Nov. 22.
▪ Jackson County: Office of Emergency Management 828-586-7592
▪ Macon County: Office of Emergency Management 828-349-2067
▪ Rutherford County: Rutherford Life Services, 230 Fairground Road, Spindale. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov. 21-23.
Fire information and maps: