After 10 days of restrictions because of raging wildfires that surged to the edge of town, this historic mountain resort reopened Monday.
As the so-called Party Rock Fire fell under more than 45 percent containment by a vast army of firefighters, roadblocks dissolved as the siege of picturesque Hickory Nut Gorge ended safely.
Firefighters had drawn the ravenous fire into a trap of containment lines during the weekend, and halted its long advance.
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 since early November.
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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.
New fires reported
Officials in McDowell County reported two new wildfires over the weekend as substantial progress was made on others in the mountains.
McDowell County Emergency Management reported fires in the Clear Creek Road and Curtis Creek areas on Sunday as high winds whipped the region. The Clear Creek fire, first reported to have burned more than 800 acres, was later revised to 186 acres. The other blaze was controlled.
On Monday, McDowell officials pleaded for the public’s help in identifying the person believed to have set four roadside fires, including the Clear Creek fire. “We’ve seen a recent rash of this, and it needs to stop,” said fire investigator Craig Walker.
South of Morganton, the Chestnut Knob fire at South Mountains State Park was 40 percent contained after burning 6,424 acres in two weeks.
Three large fires in Nantahala National Forest, covering a total of more than 30,000 acres, were all at least 69 percent contained.
Staff writer Bruce Henderson contributed.