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Wildfire causes air quality alert in 4 N.C. counties

Smoke from the growing wildfire in Pisgah National Forest in Burke County could cause breathing problems Friday for residents of four counties, North Carolina health officials say.

But authorities hope rain that is in the forecast later Friday and again Sunday could help in their effort to battle the 1,800-acre blaze in Linville Gorge.

Deborah Walker of the U.S. Forest Service said late Thursday that the blaze, which started Monday, is 40 percent contained.

About 100 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service are battling the blaze, and crews from the Oak Hill Volunteer Fire Department are trying to protect 25 buildings at the Outward Bound facility., None of those buildings has been damaged so far, Walker said.

No other buildings have been damaged by the blaze, and no injuries have been reported.

Walker said crews are focusing their efforts Friday on the southern side of the fire. They are building containment lines by hand and bulldozer.

For people outside the fire area, the big problem is smoke.

North Carolina environmental health officials have issued a Code Orange air quality alert Friday for Alexander, Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties. They say smoke from the Table Rock Fire could cause breathing problems for those with chronic respiratory conditions or for younger children.

Thick smoke also has been reported in parts of McDowell and Watauga counties.

“Smoke will increase this afternoon, due to the active fire and burnout operations,” Walker said early Friday afternoon. “The public will continue to be affected by smoke in the immediate area, but there should not be any serious impact beyond the forest boundary.”

National Weather Service meteorologists say light rain is likely in the wildfire region Friday evening. Heavier precipitation is expected Sunday, and authorities say that could be a big boost in their efforts.

Walker said crews used “burn-out tactics” Thursday to literally fight fire with fire.

Walker said crews build containing lines in the ground, then start a fire that moves toward the active fire. That creates a barrier, because the active fire’s growth area is destroyed by the intentionally-set blaze.

After starting Monday, the blaze grew quickly Wednesday morning, from 40 to about 100 acres. Walker said the fire expanded to 1,800 acres Thursday, in part because of the burn-out activities.

On Wednesday, Boone resident Lynn Willis spent about four hours watching and photographing the blaze from the western rim of Linville Gorge, safely out of the fire’s reach.

“You could hear the trees vaporizing, crashing and falling to the ground,” he said. “You couldn’t take your eyes off it.”

Willis moved to North Carolina from Arizona years ago, in part to be able to rock climb in the gorge, which he said offers some of the best rock-climbing in the country. But he is concerned about what some of the rock quality might be after the fire.

Walker said a number of trails in the area are closed, including the Table Rock Mountain, Shortoff Mountain, Conley Cove, Pinch-In and Rock Jock trails. Part of the Linville Gorge Trail also is closed.

The Table Rock Picnic Area also is closed, Walker said.

Authorities have not determined what caused the fire. They ask for anyone who might have seen someone in the area Monday to call the Grandfather Ranger District office at 828-652-2144.

Lyttle: 704-358-6107; Twitter: @slyttle
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