CONNELLY SPRINGS — Now more than a week removed since its ignition, the wildfire at South Mountains State Park grew again overnight Sunday and into Monday evening.
The blaze’s footprint had grown 3,900 acres in steep terrain with active fire behavior as of Monday at 8 p.m. and the fire was at 20 percent contained. That was an uptick from 3,200 acres and less of that was due to preventative backfires and more due to the fire continuing on its own northern path, said Ludie Bond, a public information officer with the Florida Forest Service.
The Florida Green Team that arrived over the weekend helped establish a command center at the Foothills Higher Education Center in Morganton. The Green Team assumed command of the fire operations Monday morning at 7 p.m. after several days of shadowing the North Carolina Forest Service’s Howard Team that has been in place since the fire began.
The combined team has established two new ways for the public to send and receive information about the wildfire. Folks can email email@example.com or call 828-764-9380.
The team from Florida and an increased presence from the N.C. Forest Service and the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation upped personnel at the fire to 144 Monday. Crews from Oregon and Alaska already have arrived to assist with the fire and a team from New Mexico is expected to arrive today. Additionally, the use of night crews has begun at the fire and a structure protection unit is on standby should the blaze threaten any structures.
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, South Mountain Volunteer Fire Department and Burke County EMS.
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 and 1,450 acres on Friday. The wildfire, which continued in a northern path Sunday, is one of several 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.
Charlie Peek, a public information officer with the parks service, said that efforts remained concentrated on the northern side of the park and fire, including some bulldozer work that has been ongoing for several days now.
“Most of the activity (Monday) was the same as it’s been the last couple of days in a few same spots, particularly north of the park boundary around Bob’s Knob,” which is south of Watershed Road and west of Enola Road, Peek said. “We’ve been putting in some new dozer lines and trying to get a real defensible position between the park boundary and the cluster of homes in that area.”
The fire outside that northern boundary on Saturday prompted a non-mandatory evacuation advisory for seven homes along Rich Mountain Road. As of Monday afternoon, there still was no concern about any threat to any other residential areas and no evacuations necessary, Peek said. Peek said the fire wasn’t moving rapidly Monday, but was making steady progress to the north. In the event more advisories are necessary, the Burke County Office of Emergency Services likely will use a reverse 911 system. To register for reverse 911, go to bit.ly/2fKPvya or text "burkealerts" to 828-201-3877 to register a cell phone.
Peek said that preventative backfiring has been more successful in the interior of the park to the southwest than near the boundaries. The South Mountains fire received 20 helicopter bucket water drops and 10 airplane water drops Monday. Also, firefighters had received the assistance of a spotter plane, Peek said. Lower winds the past couple days have helped the firefighting effort, but the continually falling leaf litter has been counterproductive, Peek said.
“What we’re trying to do is, where we have fire containment lines, we’re using leaf blowers to try to keep that litter off the lines,” Peek said. “That’s pretty much a continuous job for a lot of our people.”
Bond said that folks who wish to donate supplies may continue to do so at the park, located at 3001 South Mountain Ave., or the Foothills Higher Education Center, located at 2128 S. Sterling St. Also, The News Herald, located at 301 Collett St., is being used as a drop-off location for supplies.
Non-perishable food items and bottled water are some of the best things to donate, Bond said. Bond said firefighters and workers could also use things that would be helpful in the field like socks, hats, bandanas and ChapStick.
Settling smoke continued to create visibility and air quality concerns in the region Monday. Smoky conditions are expected to remain for several days. Drivers are encouraged to use high caution and watch out for displaced wildlife.
Justin Epley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-432-8943.