From CPP: Crews battle wildfires in western North Carolina

The Collette Ridge wildfire in the Nantahala National Forest is the largest of several fires across western North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Forest Service. It began on October 23 and has grown to more than 5,447 acres, affecting Cherokee, Macon and Clay counties. Despite an early November cold front that brought cooler temperatures and light rain, the fire sparked by lightning, according to the U.S. Forest Service, was still only 80 percent contained as of Nov. 16. The difficult terrain, low humidity and persistent drought have exacerbated the problem. The situation worsened. governor. Roy Cooper A state of emergency was declared on November 8, allowing additional preventive measures to be taken.

A state of emergency may be declared, according to state law, during a situation or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from a natural or man-made cause. The declaration enables government officials to take additional measures to protect the public.

The response includes 232 local, state and federal fire crews trying to contain the fire located four miles south of Andrews in the southwest corner of the state. In addition to federal and state agencies, personnel from county emergency management teams, law enforcement, and volunteer fire departments are usually part of the team that responds to wildfires.

Collette Ridge Fire Image: Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

The Collett Ridge Fire is located in a steep, remote area of ​​the Nantahala National Forest. To reduce risks to firefighters, the strategy used existing and man-made fire containment lines, such as streams and roads. The fire response was initially coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service and the North Carolina Forest Service, but as the fire expanded, the Forest Service delegated authority to the Incident Command Team — an interagency group of experts who coordinate logistics, operations, and information. Firefighters and public safety are the U.S. Forest Service’s top priorities in responding to wildfires.

Amid ongoing severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, western North Carolina is seeing a rise in wildfires and a high wildfire risk that is putting communities and public lands at risk. The risk of additional wildfires remains, requiring collective efforts from residents, land managers and emergency personnel to protect public lands and private property. The North Carolina Forest Service, which is responsible for protecting state-owned and private forest lands from wildfires, has banned open burning in 30 WNC counties.

“If we have a prolonged period of drought in the fall, we could see wildfires that are really difficult to stop,” said a fire research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. Steve Norman. “As you try to put it out, it’s constantly being replenished by the litter falling from the trees.”

In Henderson County, the 95% 430-acre Poplar Drive fire destroyed two homes, two outbuildings and three cabins. At the November 14 Poplar Drive fire briefing, Brian Rogers The N.C. Forest Service said fire crews are identifying infrastructure repairs, such as roads and culverts.

“Putting out forest fires uses heavy equipment,” he said. “Sometimes there’s erosion on trees, land and property. We’re looking at what we need to do to fix those things.”

The Collett Ridge Fire has not resulted in the loss of any structures so far. The 300-acre East Fork Fire is not expected to spread fully into Jackson County.

On November 16, the U.S. Forest Service reported a 150-acre fire in Haywood County, caused by a car accident on Interstate 40. The agency reported that a 20-person crew, supported by jet water and firefighting drops, was working to slow its advance.

Environmental benefits of forest fires

Night Ops Written by Engine 9’s Bobby Ellis on November 8, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

MountainTrue Public Lands Biologist Josh Kelly and a fire research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Steve Norman Emphasize the long-term environmental benefits of wildfires, such as improving wildlife habitat and reducing the risk of future wildfires. However, they warn of challenges in managing wildfires compared to controlled burns.

“Forests will be better off in the long run,” Kelly said. “The downside is that wildfires, unlike controlled burns, are more difficult to manage.” Kelly also highlights the increased risks posed by developments in vulnerable areas. The large-scale fires of 2016, including the Chimney Tops 2 fire in East Tennessee, serve as a stark reminder of the potential seriousness of such events.

There are also high costs associated with responding to wildfires, depending on the scale of resources used, proximity to buildings, and population density, Norman said.

“We can be more intentional about where we build homes. Building on forested slopes and hills increases their risk,” Kelly said. “Developments that are allowed to be built without adequate access also pose a significant risk. When policymakers approve developments, they must take potential wildfires into account.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, an estimated $12 million was spent on the Collet Ridge Fire.

“It takes a lot of money to keep everyone safe,” Norman said.

Todd and Lindy Smithwho own and rent three log cabins located within two miles of the source of the Collett Creek wildfire, expressed satisfaction with the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to keep residents informed and safe.

“We were very concerned when the fire started,” said Todd Smith, who remained in close contact with the U.S. Forest Service throughout the fire’s duration.

The Smith family also received updates on the operation from the agency’s Facebook page which included daily summaries with videos covering the fire’s progress and response.

“I would say we were pleasantly surprised by the U.S. Forest Service,” he said. “They were really focused on keeping residents safe.”

The situation remains unstable

Operational field updates November 8, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

The response team is working with local fire departments on plans to protect structures for future wildfires. While the fire is gradually contained, ongoing monitoring and mop-up operations continue, with some resources expected to be drawn. The situation remains risky without heavy rain, as hot spots may persist, requiring constant vigilance from firefighters.

At the Colette Ridge Fire briefing on November 15, Wes McKinney A member of the response team said they are working with local fire departments to develop structure protection plans for future wildfires.

While a small amount of rain can help firefighters, without significant precipitation, hot spots may continue to smoke, requiring firefighters to continue monitoring the landscape.

“We have started moving resources out. We will likely have most of the resources by Friday (11/17).”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, released weekly on Thursday, several counties in WNC, including Cherokee County, are experiencing severe drought conditions.

Low precipitation, fuel from falling foliage and unseasonably warm temperatures are a volatile mix, said Norman of the U.S. Forest Service.

“Fires are common in the southern Appalachians in the fall and spring, and they are always a concern,” he said. But the widespread fires in 2016 across southern Appalachia “shocked the fire research community.”

More than 50,000 acres burned in the fall of 2016 during a severe drought. Among them was the Chimney Tops II Fire, which burned 18,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and spread to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing 14 people and damaging 1,400 structures.

“(The year) 2016 was exceptional. “It showed how big fall fires are,” Norman said. “So anytime we have a big event like the Collett Ridge fire, we pay attention to it.”



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This article first appeared in Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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