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Firefighters deploy air tankers against stubborn inferno

Firefighters having 'difficulty' containing South Mountains State Park wildfire in NC

Firefighters battle terrain and winds in an attempt to corral a fire of about 1,000 acres that has been burning since Sunday in the mountains of North Carolina. Wildfires are also burning in the mountains of South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia,
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Firefighters battle terrain and winds in an attempt to corral a fire of about 1,000 acres that has been burning since Sunday in the mountains of North Carolina. Wildfires are also burning in the mountains of South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia,

An air war resumed Monday against a fierce wildfire ravaging thousands of acres near Chimney Rock.

A smoky shroud covering a thousand square miles lifted Monday morning, allowing firefighters to unleash helicopters and air tankers, said Carrie Harmon of the N.C. Forest Service.

Visibility was so limited Sunday that aircraft were grounded, she said.

Reinforcements flowed in by the dozens to battle the stubborn inferno, which grew about a third to nearly 3,500 acres on the peaks near Lake Lure. By Monday, about 350 firefighters were laboring in the rugged slopes on the blaze, which was considered only 15 percent contained.

Units from Charlotte, Monroe and Gastonia fire departments were among those defending the village of Chimney Rock, which has been evacuated since Friday. Fire has surged to the edge of the hamlet, but teams have set up lines that have kept flames away from structures.

Homes and cottages on the fringe of Lake Lure have also been spared.

Gov. Pat McCrory visited Lake Lure on Monday to inspect damage. He said that the state could be dealing with wildfire issues through the winter and into spring and urged patience.

“People just expect this to be dealt with immediately, but God doesn’t do that,” McCrory said. “This is going to be a very difficult challenge.”

About 1,000 people have been driven from their homes by wildfires, authorities estimated.

Clearing kindling

Using everything from leafblowers to bulldozers, crews are trying to cut off the fire’s advance by denying it fuel, said Brian Haines of the N.C. Forest Service.

“It’s a lot of ground pounding,” he said.

One common tactic is fighting fire with fire – controlled burns have scorched the earth in the inferno’s path, leaving it nowhere to advance.

Nearly vertical slopes and twisting winds have added to the challenges, said Brandon Munsey, a volunteer from the Mills River Fire Department in Henderson County, who was deployed to clear out brush around structures in the gorge.

“Work conditions are intense,” he said. “Very steep terrain.”

Fire-prone year

With no significant rainfall in the mountains in the last eight weeks and a crisp carpet of autumn leaves, the fire has grown dramatically since it started nine days ago. Its cause is still under investigation, and authorities suspect arson in several of the 12 major blazes in the western third of the state.

One of the biggest has been raging for two weeks in the Nantahala National Forest near the village of Almond, about 75 miles west of Asheville.

It was 40 percent contained Monday, and authorities estimated that they’d be able to halt its advance by mid-week.

So far, there have been no casualties statewide.

About 40,000 acres have been lost to fire in the region so far this autumn, making it a significantly destructive year. In 2015, only 11,000 acres were lost.

According to state forestry records, which date back a century, 1941 was the state’s worst year when about 730,000 acres were lost to wildfire.

It can take years for the forest to heal, Haines said, but fire is also beneficial to the ecosystem. It clears undergrowth and returns nutrients to the soil.

It will likely be spring before the overall damage to the forest can be determined, Haines said, because trees are entering winter dormancy and damage to root systems aren’t obvious.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs

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