CONNELLY SPRINGS — The wildfire at South Mountains State Park continued to rage in its ninth day, growing again overnight Monday and into Tuesday evening by roughly 700 acres. The fire continued to be most active near its northern boundary, according to information from the fire incident management team.
Shane Yarborough, a public information officer for the Florida Forest Service’s incident management team, said Tuesday afternoon that the fire totaled 4,600 acres. That continued the blaze’s trend after it totaled 3,900 acres Monday evening.
The fire, which began in the Chestnut Knob area of the park, ignited Nov. 6 and was 75 acres by last Monday afternoon. The blaze has grown every day since, expanding to 150 acres last Tuesday, a little more than 150 Wednesday, 400 by Thursday, 1,450 acres on Friday, 1,961 acres by Saturday and 3,200 acres Sunday. No cause has been determined for the fire and no injuries have been reported as a result of the blaze.
The wildfire is one of many in the western half of North Carolina, including blazes in Dysartsville, Chimney Rock State Park, the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests and the Maple Springs and Old Roughy fires in Graham County. The North Carolina Forest Service on Tuesday afternoon reported nine large wildfires in the state that had burned more than 40,000 acres total.
Ludie Bond, a public information officer for the Florida Forest Service, said that work on the South Mountains fire Tuesday was focused on preventing areas near containment lines from reigniting by using a “mop-up” process.
“We’re doing some mop-up down at — if you see our map — divisions Bravo, Charlie and Delta,” Bond said. “So, that’s the whole east-southeast section of the fire. We’re moving into more of a mop-up mode, which is good.
“Mop-up is when firefighters try to cool down the fire from the fire line back into the fire. They’ll do that by spraying water or a mixture of water and retardant. They’ll try to get any areas that are still smoking or flaming and try to put dirt or whatever they can to get everything cooled so there’s no visible smoke and no visible flame. Sometimes, they’ll go 50 feet in or 100 feet in or whatever operational tactic is appropriate for that area. That’s an attempt so the fire won’t rekindle in that area and come back across the containment lines.”
Personnel on scene at the fire, which was 30 percent contained as of Tuesday evening, totaled 205, along with 19 fire engines and three bulldozers. That number includes firefighters from the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, the N.C. Forest Service, the Florida Forest Service, crews from Oregon, Alaska and New Mexico, and local agencies. Incident commander John Kern reported at Tuesday’s Burke County Board of Commissioners meeting that $250,000 has been spent on the firefighting effort so far.
The firefighting effort suffered a small setback Tuesday when a power line went down and created some power outages along Rich Mountain Road in the Kilo division on the western perimeter of the fire. Bond said that power crews were dispatched to handle the situation.
Bond said the South Mountains fire received more aerial support with drops from helicopters and single-engine air tankers Monday. Those efforts dropped 12,000 gallons of retardant on the fire. Those aircraft were regional assets and took off from various locations, Bond said. Aerial firefighting efforts are ongoing at Foothills Regional Airport in Morganton and Hickory Regional Airport.
Three days after a non-mandatory evacuation advisory for seven homes along Rich Mountain Road, the Burke County Fire Marshal’s Office has issued a similar advisory for five homes along Bob’s Knob Road.
“We’re trying to implement some contingency plans precautionary to head off anything,” said Burke County Fire Marshal Mike Willis, who noted that the idea is to keep the fire from ever getting anywhere near homes. “Our No. 1 goal is to keep somebody’s house from burning.”
Willis said that the plan is to perform something called a clean back in that area to clean debris back away from residences and back burn out away from residences to prevent the fire from encroaching toward them. Willis said that process may be used in other areas as the fire’s behavior changes.
Just in case evacuations become necessary, a shelter has been opened at the Collett Street Recreation Center, Willis said. The shelter is staffed with workers from the American Red Cross and the Department of Social Services.
The forest service and park service crews are receiving cooperation from a number of local agencies, including Burke County Emergency Management, Burke County Emergency Communications, Triple Community Volunteer Fire Department, Icard Volunteer Fire Department, Enola Volunteer Fire Department, South Mountains Volunteer Fire Department, Chesterfield Fire and Rescue and Burke County EMS.
“We’re pulling (local fire departments) in as needed,” Willis said. “South Mountains Fire Department and Enola Fire Department — this in their affected area, so of course they’re in constant presence there. We’re asking for volunteer resources typically at night. This is based on the plan that the emergency management team is putting together on a daily basis.
“They’ll ask us for crews for this or a crew for that and so far, we’ve been doing just a couple departments going by there to help at night just to help monitor the fire lines and the breaks and to patrol those and help them out. That’s what (local departments) are doing.”
Willis said that the emergency management team of forest services and parks service staff is doing all it can to reserve local forces to deal with other needs in the county. He said Burke County departments remain united in that goal after receiving 287 calls for outside fires and smoke investigations in the past eight days.
“They’re trying to leave our firefighting resources as much as possible intact in case we have our own (fires), and we’ve had plenty of that,” Willis said. “This is in state park land and it’s on state park property. It’s starting to encroach on private property, and that’s (local departments’) part of this.
“Our local departments aren’t being pushed out. They are involved. The fire marshal’s office met with all the (Burke County) fire chiefs Saturday and we came up with our plan of what we need to do. We’re letting the forest firefighter people fight the forest fire. Our role, more than anything else, is to protect our citizens. If we dump all our resources into the effort of wild land firefighting, we don’t have anybody left to take care of our people and our property. That’s our primary role.”
A prayer service for the fire and those who are fighting it will take place Thursday at 5:30 p.m. on the Historic Burke County Courthouse Square. Daphne Martin, one of the event’s organizers, called it a grassroots event to unite in the cause of support the firefighting effort. Shane Ramsey, pastor at Mull’s Chapel Baptist Church in Connelly Springs, will lead the event.
Donations for firefighters will be accepted at the event. Martin said the most-needed items included high-protein/carbohydrate snacks, water flavor packs, moleskin, athletic tape, eyedrops, travel-sized wipes, saline nasal spray, ibuprofen, Emergen-C, ChapStick, Frogg Toggs cooling towels, beef jerky, protein bars, breakfast bars, bottled water, 12-16 ounce bottled Gatorade, socks, hand lotion, foot powder, hand warmers, hand wipes, bandanas, toboggans, wool caps and gloves.
For more information on the prayer service, contact Martin at 828-448-8094. To send and receive information about the wildfire, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 828-764-9380. To register for reverse 911, go to bit.ly/2fKPvya or text "burkealerts" to 828-201-3877 to register a cell phone.
Justin Epley can be reached at email@example.com or 828-432-8943.