Air quality in McDowell continues to be classified “code red” as a result of wildfires in Party Rock and South Mountain.

The National Weather Service has issued a “code red” on air quality as a result of drift smoke surrounding McDowell and western North Carolina due to a string of wildfires within nearby counties.

Measured by the Air Quality Index (AQI) a code red alert implies that everyone within the affected area may begin to experience health effects. According to Mission Health experts and state and federal air quality officials, the elderly, children and those with cardiovascular diseases, specifically asthma and COPD, should limit the exposure to outside air as fires are being combatted.

According to the N.C. Forest Service, the fire that struck Party Rock near Lake Lure is now 19 percent contained and estimated at 5,714 acres as of Wednesday. The fire, which began on Nov. 5 in Chimney Rock State Park, was initially estimated at 1,101 acres of state and private land and threatened more than 500 homes in and around Buncombe, Henderson and Rutherford Counties. According to WLOS, evacuations have already gone underway in affected areas to more than 800 citizens, with numbers only to increase.

Farther to the north, residents in the neighborhoods of Camp Elliot, Ditney Knob, Sally Gap, Three Creeks and Earth Haven will see more smoke as burnout operations continue. The established containment is in place to protect these communities; however, residents located to the north of the fire should monitor information about the fire during the forecasted wind event.

A stretch of Highway 74-A leading into Chimney Rock Village from the north and south remains closed. Highway 9 was closed Wednesday from the intersection at Highway 74-A in Bat Cave north to Shumont Road.

While efforts to contain the Party Rock fire have continued, the fire in Chestnut Knob in South Mountain State Park is currently 30 percent contained and estimated at 5,689 acres. The fire, which began on Nov. 6 in Burke County just 10 miles south of Morganton, started at 75 acres and continues to grow with each passing day. Agencies from Oregon, Florida and Alaska have provided mutual aid to combat the flames.

Elsewhere in Clay County, the Boteler Fire that ignited Oct. 25 in the Chunky Gal Mountain area is currently 51 percent contained and estimated at 8,967 acres; in Swain and Macon Counties, the Telico Fire that began Nov. 3 in the Nantahala Gorge area has scorched 13,679 acres and is currently 74 percent contained.

Emergency Services Director William Kehler discussed McDowell’s initiative concerning Party Rock and South Mountain.

“Since last Saturday, daily briefings have been held at the N.C. Forest Service Office in McDowell, where representatives from local emergency agencies come together to discuss daily operational plans,” said Kehler at the time of questioning. “Emergency Managers in the county are attending an additional briefing this afternoon in Lake Lure to obtain the latest forecasts and predictions for the Party Rock Fire.”

Kehler additionally confirmed that a prolonged period of gusty winds are anticipated through the weekend, which will further enhance the fire danger threat.

In light of the fires in western N.C., government tactics have gone underway for preventative measures. In a statement made by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has authorized federal funds to reimburse costs to the state of N.C. to combat the Party Rock fire, allowing 75 percent of eligible firefighting costs – such as labor, equipment and emergency work in evacuations and sheltering – to be reimbursed.

Governor Pat McCrory, prior to the events in Party Rock, issued a State of Emergency to combat the more than 20 active wildfires in the state.

“As eastern North Carolina was underwater due to flooding from Hurricane Matthew, the western part has been suffering from a severe drought and now hundreds of acres are burning,” said McCrory at the time of administering the State of Emergency. “This declaration will help facilitate evacuations as needed and provide further state assets to help combat the wildfires and support North Carolinians displaced by the fires.”

While a direct cause to the fires has been undetermined, a leading cause, according to Chief Meteorologist Chris White of Foothills Weather Network, is the consistent drought facing western N.C.

“In McDowell County alone, we are six and a half inches below our standard expectancy, which has allowed dry conditions in forest areas can allow wildfires to ignite more easily,” said White.

When asked about potential significant rainfall, White confirmed that while a pattern change is expected within the late part of November, there are no forecasts for precipitation at this time.

In statements made to the press, McCrory and Forest Service officials have stated that the fire could continue burning until March unless the state receives rain or snow.

At the height of the numerous wildfires, the N.C. Forest Service issued a burning ban in all 25 counties in the western part of the state, while the McDowell County Commissioners issued a stricter temporary ban that prohibits burning within 100 feet of a residence. Effective Nov. 7, Emergency Services Director William Kehler stated that the ban includes the use of charcoal grills, fire pits and burning in barrels. Gas grills that have covers will be the exception, the Commissioners agreed.

“Without that ordinance in place, any citizen can burn within 100 feet of their house and we can’t do anything about it,” said Glenwood Fire Chief Donnie Tipton. “Conditions are so great, we are pretty much standing on our own.”

In a press release issued on Wednesday, a National Wildfire Prevention and Education Team arrived in North Carolina to conduct wildfire prevention assessments and awareness activities. The team will be working closely with the N.C. Forest Service, USDA Forest Service, local fire departments and local law enforcement to develop and deliver fire prevention messages in areas of high fire occurrence.

For more information on current wildfires in western North Carolina go to inciweb.nwcg.gov/state/34/ or call the North Carolina Joint Information Center at (828) 575-2840. For information on preparing your home and property for a wildfire, visit the North Carolina Firewise website at www.ncfirewise.org. Road information can be accessed on the NCDOT Travel Information Management System website at tims.ncdot.gov/tims/regionsummary.aspx.

The burning ban issued by the N.C. Forest Service will remain active until further notice; anyone who sees fire or smoke should call 911 immediately. Violating the ban will result in a $100 fine plus court costs of $180.

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