Crews beheaded a fiery serpent Sunday that had thrashed unchecked for two weeks through the rugged gorges around Lake Lure, using wind gusts to drive it into containment lines that proved impermeable.
Though the wildfire will not be completely subdued for many days, firefighters scored a major victory in the weekend showdown and can now tighten the firebreak lasso on the stubborn inferno that has scorched more than 7,100 acres.
“We should be in great shape,” Dan Brandon of the N.C. Forest Service told his troops Sunday. He commands more than 900 firefighters drawn from across the nation, including a crew of 20 that flew in from Alaska.
Low humidity and tinder-dry forest conditions are still working against his force, but Sunday appeared to be the turning point against the fire that at one point surged to the edge of Chimney Rock village, triggering a week-long evacuation.
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Not a single structure was lost to the wildfire, a remarkable achievement against a blaze that at one point was ripping through 1,000 fresh acres each day and clouding even the skies of Charlotte, 90 miles to the east.
Though 16 large wildfires are considered still active in Western North Carolina, most are largely contained and in wilderness areas, jeopardizing only forest land.
But the Lake Lure fire shot to the top tier of the national wildfire priority list because it threatened thousands of people and hundreds of homes in the well-developed resort area.
How the fire was fought
Though authorities are still investigating its origins, the fire started on Nov. 5 on a geological ledge carved in distant antiquity and now called Party Rock.
Flames spilled down steep granite slopes toward Chimney Rock State Park. It spread through the narrow gorge, imperiling the pearl-strand of towns along the Broad River – Bat Cave, Chimney Rock and Lake Lure.
Two classes of firefighters flowed in.
Regular fire departments drawn largely from the eastern half of the state – departments from the mountains needed to defend their own drought-stricken territories – were stationed in the towns to protect structures.
Forestry crews headed into the highlands with shovels, chainsaws and bulldozers to build containment lines against the spreading blaze.
They had been laboring for nearly a week when, on Nov. 10, the fire made a dash for Chimney Rock.
“We had planned to stop it,” said Shane Hardee of the N.C. Forest Service, “but it beat us.”
Chimney Rock was ordered evacuated the following day. Firefighters wanted the village cleared out to ensure no loss of life and to give them nimble access along the roads to respond to incursions.
A military operation
A command post was set up at the Lake Lure municipal center, which took on the appearance of a fireman’s carnival, choked with specialty trucks from dozens of agencies. Charlotte sent a fuel truck to keep gas tanks full; Greensboro dispatched a long trailer with shower facilities.
Through the night, fire managers mapped the progress of the blaze, devised strategy and prepared a daily briefing plan that outlined each division’s targets.
A meteorologist from the National Weather Service parsed the local forecast; a state fire-behavior specialist, sort of a psychologist for wildfires, calculated winds, ground fuel and terrain to predict the fire’s next moves.
Plans were distributed each day at a 7 a.m. meeting when the day shift came on for its 12-hour duty. Crews then went to relieve the night shift and take up defensive positions.
“It’s like a chess game,” said Andy Lyon, a spokesman for the fire command. “If the houses are the king and queen, we’re moving our pawns, castles and bishops wherever there’s a threat.”
From above, helicopters and air tankers dumped water and fire retardant when winds and visibility would permit it.
A defensive plan
Knowing that a cold front would bring gusty winds during the weekend, forestry crews build a containment line near the Henderson-Rutherford county line north and east of Weed Patch Mountain.
They cleared wide swaths of anything combustible, forming a barrier to sever the fire’s prow.
Saturday night, they sheltered in trucks in case the fire hurled branches from the forest canopy, still rich in dead leaves. They waited in 25-degree cold to see whether their line would hold.
They had done their job well. Flames ran headlong into the trap. There were no breaches. At last, the Party Rock Fire was stopped cold.
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 firefighting 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.