Wildfires continued to expand across the North Carolina mountains on Monday, with 15 active fires engulfing nearly 44,000 acres and little headway made on controlling many of them.
Nearly 1,600 firefighters are battling blazes that have cost more than $10 million, state officials said. About 1,000 people have been driven from their homes by wildfires, authorities estimated.
Gov. Pat McCrory visited Lake Lure on Monday to inspect damage from the Party Rock fire, which has burned 2,450 acres but is only 15 percent contained. 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.”
Thirty mountain counties are in drought, and federal forecasts predict dry weather in the western Carolinas will persist through at least January.
Keeping people and structures safe remains a state priority. Since late October, wildfires have destroyed two structures, damaged one and threatened 1,780 others, officials said.
Smoke from the fires could damage mountain residents’ lungs, the state Air Quality Division said Monday.
State forecasters expect Code Purple conditions Tuesday – very unhealthy air – for Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties in the state’s southwestern corner. Code Red, or generally unhealthy air, is expected for much of the rest of the mountains and the foothills.
Potentially unhealthy levels of smoke drifted into Charlotte last Friday morning.
“People should be aware of air quality in their area, as conditions can vary widely,” said Mike Abraczinskas, deputy air-quality director. “If you observe low visibility due to smoke, then the air is probably unhealthy to breathe and you should limit your time outdoors.”
High levels of fine particles in smoke can make it harder to breathe, aggravate respiratory conditions and irritate the lungs in healthy individuals. People with chronic lung ailments and children should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activity, the state said.
On Saturday, the Federal Emergency Management Association approved McCrory’s request to pay for 75 percent of the emergency protective measures taken in fighting the fires, such as equipment use. McCrory declared a state of emergency in 25 counties last week.
Among the major fires torching the mountains:
Tellico in Macon and Swain counties; 13,676 acres burned; 39 percent contained.
Party Rock in Rutherford County; 3,457 acres; 15 percent contained.
Boteler in Clay County; 8,695 acres; 37 percent contained.
Maple Springs in Graham County; 7,177 acres; 15 percent contained.
Chestnut Knob in Burke County; 2,850 acres; 15 percent contained.
Staff writer Mark Washburn contributed.