The tinder-dry, windy weather that set the stage for about a dozen wildfires blazing in the North Carolina mountains is also making it hard to snuff them out.
Evacuation notices went out Friday for parts of two Rutherford County communities threatened by a nearly 1,000-acre wildfire that jumped its containment line overnight.
Even larger fires are burning to the west, in Nantahala National Forest. More than 565 firefighters and support staff are battling 10 wildfires that now cover more than 22,000 acres.
The effects could be felt as far away as Charlotte on Friday, when the city woke up to hazy skies and an unhealthy dose of smoke in the air.
The Party Rock fire, as the Rutherford County blaze near Chimney Rock State Park is called, covered 344 acres but was 30 percent contained on Tuesday. By Thursday night, it had spread to 977 acres of steep terrain – then got worse, racing across a containment line on Shumont Mountain.
“It has grown substantially larger, but we don’t know the number,” said Bill Swartley, a spokesman for the agencies that have 142 firefighters on the scene.
Officials in Lake Lure, about 90 miles west of Charlotte, and Chimney Rock ordered mandatory evacuations in some parts of their towns Friday and urged residents of other areas to voluntarily leave. In early afternoon, the orders became mandatory as the fire rapidly grew.
The scene at the edge of Lake Lure looked like something out of a disaster movie.
An enormous column of smoke rose from nearby Chimney Rock as helicopters and single-engine airplanes disappeared into and out of the cloud. Air horns wailed in the distance. Gawkers by the dozens stood in parking lots at the Lake Lure Arcade and Lake Lure Beach, with necks craned skyward, camera phones aloft.
The air smelled like burning brush. Leaves that typically burst into shades of red, yellow and orange during leaf-watching season had been scorched black and floated on breezes high above the lake.
“For this town, this is a big deal,” said Greg Balk, a Lake Lure Realtor, during a break from broadcasting about the wildfires via Facebook Live. “We get floods through here that are a big deal, but I’ve been here for 11 years and we’ve never had anything like this. Never. It’s been so windy, and it’s so dry. And now it’s scary.”
Earlier in the day, winds shifted the blaze from the west side of Lake Lure to the east, prompting authorities to evacuate a new swath of homes and to cut off access to places like Chimney Rock State Park and Boys Camp Road via U.S. 74.
That spelled trouble for Danny and Linda Holland of Woodruff, S.C., who made the 75-minute drive Friday afternoon after being tipped off that the cabin that’s been in their family for almost 50 years might be in danger.
When they arrived, the state troopers manning a roadblock wouldn’t let them pass. The cabin, the couple said, was less than a mile up the road.
“We can’t even walk in there,” said their adult daughter, Dana Day, as her 10-year-old son buried his head in her side and choked back tears. “We were going to come get some stuff out of the cabin that was more sentimental to us.... There’s a lot of nice antiques up there.”
They stood on the edge of Arcade Street for more than an hour just staring at the smoke and making phone calls, unsure of their next move. “We asked the policeman what can we do,” Day said, “and he said, ‘All you can do is pray right now.’ ”
A few dozen feet away, Lake Lure resident Bob Bruning stood around looking equally shell-shocked.
His house in Lake Lure Village Resort was suddenly off-limits, although his wife – who had arrived before the road was closed – was able to retrieve some belongings before being evacuated.
“We got our dogs, a couple laptops,” Bruning said. “I wanted her to get the safe because it’s got important papers, but she couldn’t lift it.”
Still, the fire’s shift in direction was good news (mostly) for Virginia transplants Chris and Amy Brevard, who on Tuesday were evacuated from the home in Roaming Bald Resort they’ve lived in for just four months. For the time being, they were out of the line of fire.
“We just found out an hour ago we’re going to get to go back home tonight,” said Amy Brevard, whose family spent three nights in a condo on the other side of the resort that was loaned to evacuees. “We’re very excited to get back to the home. But...”
“We’re very concerned, too. Will our home be filled with smoke? Because it was so close to the fire. We’re concerned about damage to the landscape because of the burn lines and things like that.”
Added her husband, Chris: “It’s really weird and surreal because we were the evacuees and everybody was lending a helping hand out to us, and now all the people that were (helping us), they’re being evacuated. So as grateful as I am that we get to go back to our house, I almost feel guilty ... because I’m watching other people be evacuated. It’s just hard.”
Charlotte smells smoke
Months of hot, dry weather have parched the region, with 30 mountain counties in some stage of drought. No rain is in sight.
“This fire has been in very steep terrain, it has been very dry and we’ve had gusty winds,” Swartley said of the Party Rock fire. “It had ample time, ample fuel and the weather conditions were right, and the fire made a run overnight.”
No homes had been lost by midday Friday and no major injuries reported. The cause of the fire is still being investigated.
Nearly all wildfires are sparked by humans, statistics compiled by the N.C. Forest Service show. An average of 4,100 fires and nearly 22,000 acres burned a year were reported between 2011 and 2015. Only 2 percent were caused by lightning. Debris burning accounted for 42 percent of the fires and intentional setting about 17 percent.
So far this year, fires have burned about 19,000 acres, slightly lower than the annual average of recent years.
Wildfires have also burned about 1,000 acres at South Mountains State Park near Morganton. The state parks division on Friday closed that park, Chimney Rock and six others: New River, Gorges, Elk Knob, Lake James and Mount Mitchell, and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area.
People planning to visit other state parks in the western part of the state are advised to check the division’s web site at http://www.ncparks.gov/ before making the trip.
In Charlotte, the local air quality index early Friday morning was Code Orange, meaning concentrations of fine particles from wind-blown smoke could exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions. By late morning, conditions had improved to a moderate Code Yellow.
Organizers of this weekend’s Charlotte Marathon said Friday that they do not expect the wildfire smoke to impact the Saturday event.
National forests on fire
Hundreds of firefighters battled 10 major fires in Nantahala National Forest, which sprawls across the southwestern tip of North Carolina.
The largest of those fires:
▪ Tellico, in southern Swain County, has burned 6,839 acres.
▪ Maple Springs, north of Santeetlah Lake in Graham County, 5,083 acres.
▪ Boteler, in Clay County, 4,767 acres.
Simple Life Campground & Cabins near Robbinsville still had a few guests Friday, but the smoke was thick and soot settled on parked cars, said Lenette Moore, wife of the owner. Fires are about 3 miles from the campground, which is outside Nantahala National Forest.
“I can see maybe half a mile,” Moore said. last “We’re being told to stay in, and if you have to be outside have a wet cloth over your face.
“The only thing we can do is pray, and watch and listen and leave if we have to.”
The Nantahala Outdoor Center, a whitewater rafting business in Swain County, is closed to the public “due to the severity and proximity of area forest fires and poor air conditions. Evacuees staying on site will be relocated to other area shelters. We will operate on a limited capacity as long as possible to feed agencies working the fires,” marketing manager Gavin Young said by email.
The fires are feeding off more merely than warm, dry weather, said Tom MacKenzie, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman at the Nantahala fires.
“A lot of these lands have been dry for a long time, and a lot of them have not burned in a long time,” MacKenzie said. “The other thing that’s challenging is that we’re in the leaf fall season, so dry leaves can fall onto a smoldering stump and reignite a fire.”
That happened in the Dick’s Creek part of the forest, reigniting a fire that started Oct. 23 and had been largely contained. Firefighters armed with rakes and shovels also carry leaf blowers to clear leaves off fire lines.
The Nantahala fires have been slow-moving and often creep down the sides of mountains instead of up them. But that’s not always true, MacKenzie said. Steep-sided mountain hollows pose another challenge can create a flow of air that fans flames.
In those conditions, ground fires can leap to tree canopies “just like a bonfire. It’s a jet-engine sound,” he said.
The Nantahala firefighters come from more than 40 states and work for a variety of federal agencies and some western Indian tribes. They work shifts of 14 to 16 hours, usually for two weeks at a time.
“Nobody was expecting to be fighting fires at Thanksgiving,” he said.
Mark Price contributed