Two great forces clashed in combat early Sunday – one ravenous, capricious and surging across new ground; the other nimble, focused and braced for the worst.
Nature was the first adversary and it unleashed a cannonade of wind in the mountains around Lake Lure, fanning a vexatious wildfire that has scorched 7,000 acres and flashed to peak strength Saturday.
Against the onslaught was an army of more than 900 firefighters who spent the calm days ahead of the windstorm fortifying containment lines they carved in the dry, rugged forests to choke off the inferno.
As the fire roared northward in gusts exceeding 35 mph, they stood in freezing temperaturs near the tip of the spear to defend their line against flying embers streaking into the night sky, capable of pole-vaulting fresh clearings 200 feet wide in places.
“As far as we know, the lines are holding,” said Andy Lyon, a spokesman for the joint fire command, “but it’s supposed to blow all night.”
Early Sunday, the fire had advanced up to containment lines, but defenses were holding, said Phillip Truitt of fire command, though persistent gusts remained a critical concern.
“We’re still worried about the wind,” he said.
Gusts kicked up some hot-spots in the slopes around Lake Lure earlier Saturday. Brush trucks howled into the hills to tamp them out.
Fire managers warned residents to the east of the fire, including those near Lake Lure in Apple Valley and Shumont Estates, to prepare for possible evacuation because of shifting winds.
This weekend’s pyrotechnic engagement is possibly the determinate battle in what is called the Party Rock Fire, named for the cliff overlooking Lake Lure and Chimney Rock State Park where it started Nov. 5.
It got its name from graffiti painted years ago – a hiker wrote “Party” in letters big enough to be discerned from the valley, 1,500 feet below. Scrubbed by wind and rain, it is but a faint, ghostly imprint today, but the name still sticks.
In all, 16 large wildfires were considered active in Western North Carolina over the weekend. Most are largely contained, including a 14,000-acre monster in the Nantahala National Forest named the Tellico Fire, 75 miles west of Asheville.
Another fire that has burned about 6,300 acres since Nov. 6 in South Mountain State Park about 10 miles south of Morganton was declared 35 percent contained Saturday.
Moisture levels in the soil are at historic lows in the highlands. It has been nearly 50 days since a significant rainfall in the region, and none is forecast.
If the drought does not break, forestry officials say, wildfire danger could last until March.
Authorities say the cause of the Party Rock Fire is yet undetermined. Arson has not been ruled out.
From the granite monolith, flames splashed downward into Hickory Nut Gorge along walls steep enough to baffle a goat. It fed on the rain-starved forest, where crisp, dead vegetation sat in places a foot deep.
A week later, the fire strode down the mountainside toward Chimney Rock, moving so swiftly that the village was hastily evacuated Nov. 11.
Fire departments from Charlotte, Gastonia, Wrightsville Beach and dozens of other far-flung jurisdictions dispatched crews to defend the quaint resort town that dates to 1843. Three days ago, 30 fire trucks from Arizona pulled in with reinforcements.
Fire flickered to the edge of Chimney Rock, but there it was repulsed with no loss of structures. After a week in exile, residents were given the all-clear to return Saturday.
One claw still snapping
To picture the fire, imagine a crab five times the size of Charlotte’s uptown. Its left claw would be resting along the Broad River at Chimney Rock, where the fire’s fury is spent.
Its right claw is about five miles to the north on the Henderson-Rutherford county line at Weed Patch Mountain. There firefighters are massed to make their stand.
With shovels, rakes, bulldozers, leaf blowers, chain saws and controlled back fires, they built in recent days what they hoped would be a fireproof land moat, then invited the fire to test it.
“Our strategy was to wait for it to come to us,” said Lyon.
“We want to meet it where we could hold it with a chance of success.”
Studying the enemy
Firefighting is largely a matter of muscle and brain power.
Sitting side-by-side in the fire command post at the Lake Lure’s municipal center are two scientists key to devising the weekend showdown.
Dan Byrd is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service who studied the windy cold front and forecast the destiny of its gusts. John Cook is a fire behavior specialist with the North Carolina Forest Service who predicted the fire’s flow through the jagged terrain.
By late Sunday, winds are expected to abate, and only then it will be known who won the Battle of Party Rock. If the lines hold, containment is possible by month’s end, forestry officials estimate.
If the lines don’t, there is a Plan B.
Scouts are already to the north in McDowell County looking at streams, roads and other potential fire barriers, prospecting for a fallback position for the next battlefront.
Fire managers say the outpouring of donations – food, water, energy drinks, and even wool socks – from the communities around the fire and even as far away as Charlotte were valuable in the early days of the fire-fighting effort before supply lines kicked in.
Now, they say, it’s time to pause the effort. They’ve now got more than they need. It’s starting to stack up.
“We’re well taken care of,” said Andy Lyon, a spokesman for the joint fire command. Those of charitable hearts, he said, can still be instrumental by donating money to local volunteer fire departments throughout the region.