A windy weekend could expand mountain wildfires that firefighters have made progress in controlling, state and federal officials said Wednesday.
Fifteen still-active fires have burned more than 47,000 acres since late October. While some – notably one near Lake Lure – have proved stubborn to snuff out, significant progress has been made this week on the largest of them.
“We are making really good progress,” said Lisa Jennings of the U.S. Forest Service. “And that was helped out by the weather system of the last couple of days – cloudy conditions, raised humidity and no wind.”
The largest of the active fires, 13,679-acre Tellico in the Nantahala National Forest of Swain and Macon counties was 68 percent contained Wednesday. The 8,967-acre Boteler fire in Clay County was at 51 percent containment.
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Evacuation orders within the national forests have been canceled. Some areas remain closed, including the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness and parts of the Appalachian Trail and other trails.
But high winds that are expected to blow in this weekend, coupled with low humidity, could reverse those gains, blowing flames past containment boundaries or reigniting fires in previously burned areas. Little chance of rain is in the forecast, but hard freezes are also expected – turning green vegetation into dead, dry fuel for the fires.
A cold front is expected to pack sustained winds of 20 mph Saturday, with gusts to 25 mph, said meteorologist Dan Byrd at the 4,480-acre Party Rock fire near Lake Lure. Winds of 15 to 20 mph are expected Sunday, with humidity dropping to the low 20 percent range.
“The big thing Saturday and Sunday will be the wind,” Byrd said. Firefighters are preparing by digging wider containment lines, he said.
An evacuation of areas along N.C. 9 was scheduled to start at noon Wednesday.
The Party Rock fire is still only 19 percent contained and is slowly spreading in most directions. “If the perimeter expands by 20 percent, even if we complete 20 percent more containment we’re standing still,” Lyon said.
The historically dry litter of leaves and dead wood on the forest floor, a layer of fuel eight to 12 inches thick, feeds the flames. Embers into that deep layer can smolder for days.
South of Morganton, at South Mountains State Park, the Chestnut Knob fire has burned 4,600 acres of steep terrain. It is only 30 percent contained despite air drops of fire retardant Tuesday. Residents of nearby Bob Knob Road were urged to evacuate.