Fire feasted Saturday on rain-starved slopes deep in North Carolina’s highlands, touching off urgent evacuations and shrouding thousands of square miles in an acrid mist of smoke.
One stubborn blaze west of Asheville raging since Oct. 23 in Swain and Macon counties appeared on track to reach historic proportions perhaps as early as this weekend. Called the Tellico Fire, it had spread by Saturday to nearly 10,000 acres, an inferno unseen in the region since 1952.
Another blaze in Chimney Rock was visible from Hickory, 75 miles to the northeast. On that stretch of Interstate 40 where Piedmont motorists first glimpse the vista of the Blue Ridge, its billows mounted the horizon like a great soapy volcano.
Beneath the fire’s hazy canopy, there was prismatic magic: Sunshine fell in vivid amber from a tangerine sky.
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Firefighters welcomed the otherworldly light — mounds of smoke hanging aloft signaled the lightest of winds, and the sky blanket kept the sun from further parching the forest floor.
Humidity rose Saturday as well, and temperatures were in the mild 50s, helping crews make progress in cutting fire breaks before the creeping tide of flames.
Similar conditions are expected for the coming days, but nowhere in the forecast is a hint of soaking rain.
Western North Carolina has had only four autumns in the last 104 years with worse droughts than is being experienced now, authorities say. An army of 1,100 firefighters from across the country are engaged in the battle.
In all, 12 major fires are under attack in the rugged uplands.
Forestry officials say only one was ignited by lightning, the so-called Boteler Fire, not far from the Georgia border.
Arson is suspected in others, said Cathy Dowd, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville.
Evidence of accelerants has been found. Rangers and sheriff’s departments are investigating.
Still others are believed to be the result of unattended campfires and discarded cigarettes.
Fleeing the fire
Chimney Rock, a mountain hamlet whose economy is built on tourism, was a ghost town Saturday.
Its 109 residents were abruptly shooed away Friday as a nearby fire breached containment lines and the hamlet may remain vacant well into the week.
Bill Miller, 54, who retired to the village in 2000 from Greensboro, found the road into town blocked by troopers. He trudged overland three miles to his house — built as an inn in 1945 by a former dancer for the Radio City Rockettes — to salvage what he could.
He’d loaded medicine, important papers, valuables and other necessities into his second car when the police found him.
“They said you’re leaving, not in 10 minutes, we mean now,” Miller said.
“Look at it,” Miller said, motioning to his Land Rover, filled to the rooftop luggage rack. “All we need is granny’s rocker and it’s the Beverly Hillbillies.”
Miller and Frank Campbell, 51, found refuge about five miles away at the historic Lake Lure Inn, which offered a discount to neighbors evacuated from Chimney Rock.
Campbell, who served on the Chimney Rock village council, said people in the village are concerned both about the fires and their livelihoods.
Many, he said, make their living on tourism and the fires have struck during the busy leaf-peeping season.
“They’ve got all their inventory back there,” he said, “and a lot of them live in the same buildings as their businesses.”
No room at inn
Lake Lure Inn was full with about 20 fire refugees, many firefighters and two weddings Saturday, said Daniel Bielke. He’d been at the front desk during the chaos Friday when Chimney Rock suddenly emptied out and had a lobby of about 50 people — and then the power died.
Built in 1927 and known for hosting Franklin Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the cast and crew of “Dirty Dancing,” the old inn was donating 200 barbecue lunches to the firefighters down the road.
A well-organized community effort kept the grub coming for the troops — the Ingless supermarket in Lake Lure sent 400 pounds of chili and 500 sandwiches, and donation centers were collecting bottled water and other goods for them.
What of the bees?
Cathy Maddux, 56, a former Charlottean who moved to Chimney Rock about 18 months ago, was one of the early evacuees last week and had enough warning to gather important belongings.
She found of crew of foresters in her yard Wednesday telling her the fire was coming and she and her husband would have to leave. Then the workers cleared flammables away from the four-bedroom home.
Maddux has heard that the fire came close, but apparently spared the house.
“But I've got some beehives up there,” she said, “and I’d like to know they're OK.”