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Mecklenburg County joins drought list as NC offers $10,000 reward in wildfires

A firefighting helicopter fills its water tanks over Lake Lure on Wednesday as firefighters battle the Party Rock fire near Lake Lure and Chimney Rock in North Carolina.
A firefighting helicopter fills its water tanks over Lake Lure on Wednesday as firefighters battle the Party Rock fire near Lake Lure and Chimney Rock in North Carolina. TNS

Mecklenburg County has joined 35 other North Carolina counties that are officially in drought, according to data updated Thursday, while Gov. Pat McCrory offered a $10,000 state reward to find whoever set wildfires in the parched mountains.

Mecklenburg changed from “abnormally dry,” its condition since mid-September, to “moderate drought” on the U.S. Drought Monitor map of North Carolina. Moderate drought is the first of four drought stages.

Thirty-six western counties are now in drought, compared to 30 a week ago, and 11 more counties are rated abnormally dry. Five counties on the state’s western tip – Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Macon and Swain – are in the highest stage of drought.

Sixty-one water systems, including Charlotte’s, have called for voluntary conservation measures and 21 systems have made them mandatory.

Charlotte’s rainfall so far for the year is 7 inches below normal. Asheville’s is more than 10 inches below normal.

Streams and groundwater levels are showing the effects of months of dry weather. Water levels in the largest reservoirs on the Catawba River – Lakes James, Norman and Wylie – are about 2 feet below target levels. Duke Energy has closed some boat ramps on Lake Wylie.

But the drought’s most obvious impact has been the smoke billowing from 15 active wildfires in the mountains, making Charlotte’s air unhealthy at times for nearly a week.

Fires that are still burning have now torched 46,700 acres, largely from man-made causes such as debris burning or arson. McCrory on Thursday announced a state reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of people who set the fires.

“We are committed to doing all we can to support our firefighters, protect people and property, and find those who may be responsible for any wildfires in North Carolina,” McCrory said. “Firefighters are making progress, but the job is not over. I especially want to thank the volunteers serving as firefighters and those helping to feed, house and support firefighters in communities throughout our state.”

Most of the fires are in national forests that spread across the North Carolina mountain counties. Those fires are slowly coming under control, but two stubborn fires closer to Charlotte are the source of most of the smoke blowing into the city.

The Party Rock fire near Lake Lure and Chimney Rock covers 5,714 acres, and only 19 percent of its perimeter has been contained.

Business owners and residents of Chimney Rock village, evacuated days ago, will be allowed to return Saturday. The village will remain closed to visitors and through-traffic until further notice.

The Chestnut Knob fire at South Mountains State Park south of Morganton has burned 5,689 acres and is 35 percent contained.

Air quality in the Charlotte region Friday is expected to be Code Orange, or unhealthy for sensitive groups such as asthma sufferers. It will be Code Red (generally unhealthy) on the state’s western end.

Strong winds from a cold front are expected to blow most of the smoke out of the region this weekend, state forecasters say.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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