Earlier today we wrote about the three-day, three-fire, three-state road trip where a group of us boarded a very comfortable bus, or coach, and toured the sites of three large fires that occurred last fall in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.
Here are some photos, taken by Bill Gabbert. If you click on a photo, you’ll see larger versions. The captions are in the top-left.
Above: Fire Management Officer Jeff Schardt talks about managing the Rough Ridge Fire.
I had never heard of a organized multi-day road trip that involved visiting several large fires that burned in previous years, so when the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists (CAFMS) distributed notices about one I was very interested. Their plans were to spend about a half day each at three fires in three states over a three-day period. The fires occurred last fall in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Since they were pretty far apart the remaining half days were devoted to traveling in a bus (or coach) to the sites. At each location we would meet with local subject matter experts that would explain how the fires were managed, the effects on the natural resources, and the social issues.
So I signed up.
The expedition was primarily organized by two folks from the CAFMS, the director Helen Mohr, and Jenifer Bunty, their Public Information Coordinator.
Ms. Mohr is a researcher that has been working with the USFS’ Southern Research Station until recently when she was selected as Director for the CAFSM, and said she now spends most of her time with that organization.
Ms. Bunty has bachelor’s degrees in biology and Russian, obtained a master’s in biology, has conducted research in the Russian Far East, and has worked for the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network. She is now working remotely for the CAFSM from China (yes, that China), but commuted to the Southeast for this road trip.
There were approximately 12 to 15 people that were on the journey for all three days, but at each stop others joined to talk about or learn about that particular fire. At the Rough Ridge Fire two or three dozen students from Clemson University’s forestry summer camp joined us.
Day 1 of the Road Trip, June 6, the Party Rock Fire
This fire started November 5, 2016 and blackened about 7,100 acres mostly in Chimney Rock State Park at Lake Lure in western North Carolina.
We met the first day at 8 a.m. in Flat Rock, North Carolina where we boarded the coach for a 30-minute trip to Lake Lure and heard presentations by the officials from Chimney Rock State Park and the mayors of Lake Lure and Chimney Rock Village. They discussed the effects on their populations, the evacuations, and the suppression of the fire.
Then after viewing the fire in the distance from a viewpoint, the group began a strenuous hike to a point called Party Rock, up a very steep washed out abandoned logging road — 2.4 miles round trip with a 1,500-foot elevation gain. After lunch and various discussions about fire effects, five hours later we reboarded the thankfully air conditioned coach.
In another two hours we were at a motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Day 2 of the Road Trip, June 7, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire
The Chimney Tops 2 Fire started in southeast Tennessee November 23, 2016 inside Smoky Mountains National Park and six days burned into Gatlinburg killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,400 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres.
A short drive that morning took us to a turnout on US Highway 441 where the Park’s Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky told us about the first six days of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. Later at different locations we heard a talk by Fire Ecologist Rob Klein about fire effects on vegetation, and Jessica Giacomini and Cory Blair presented information about the effects on animals.
Ms. Giacomini said of the 50 black bears in the park that have radio collars, 20 of them were in the fire area at the time. All of those survived, but two that were not collared died; one was found dead and the other had to be euthanized due to its serious injuries. She said the collared bears hunkered down and remained in the fire area as it burned. This will provide a very rare opportunity, she said, to find out what bears do before, during, and after a wildfire.
That day the group viewed the burned area from several different vantage points, hiked the Cove Mountain Trail, and heard from Emily Snider of UNC and Joe O’Brien of the USFS about various fire intensities, the effects on Table Mountain Pine, and delayed mortality of the overstory.
The day ended with a 2.5 hour coach ride to Dalton, Georgia.
Day 3 of the Road Trip, June 8, the Rough Ridge Fire
The Rough Ridge Fire started on October 16, 2016 in the Cohutta Wilderness of northern Georgia and burned almost 28,000 acres in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
A 30-minute coach ride took us from Dalton, Georgia to the Conasauga Ranger Station in Chatsworth where we heard from District Fire Management Officer Jeff Schardt.
This was the location where we were joined by two to three dozen forestry students from Clemson. After the initial presentation at the District Office, we all got back into our coach and the vans the students traveled in, and the convoy visited several sites in the footprint of the fire.
Areas treated with prescribed fire over the years were taken advantage of in several locations around the perimeter, and the group saw some of the effects of those projects. The reduction in fuel lowered the fire intensity and served as logical points at which to stop the fire.
Karen Larson, Recreation Program Manager on the District, told the group about issues related to managing a fire in a federal wilderness area, and how the decisions were made initially about suppression tactics.
District Biologist Ruth Stokes covered the impacts on animals. She said bats are migratory and had already left for their hibernation sites in caves. The fire may have destroyed some den trees that bears like, but the fire probably created quite a few more.
Ms. Stokes said that some fish were killed along several miles of the Conasauga River on the northwestern fire perimeter. The exact cause is not certain, but they think it may have been a result of ash deposition in the water. That area, she said, was heavily impacted by smoke. Fire retardant dropped by aircraft was not used in that area.
At all three fire sites we were told that access was extremely difficult and that issue had a very significant effect on the selection of suppression alternatives and the ultimate size and duration of the fires.
This is the first multi-day, multi-fire organized road trip that I am aware of. Depending on your interests, if there are ever any more you might find it as interesting as I did. Unfortunately, when someone asked Ms. Mohr, the director of CAFMS, if she would organize more in the future, her very quick answer was, “No”.
I found the 3-day road trip very interesting and worthwhile, and hope the CAFMS and other groups conduct more.
A much shorter trip on the other side of the country occurred today, planned by Utah State University and billed as the “Second Annual Wildland Fire Tour”, a six-hour event south of Tooele, Utah. The topic was mechanical treatments such as mastication. There was no indication that they would tour a prescribed or wildland fire. It was live-streamed; I watched a few minutes of it but it looked like it was filmed with a cell phone and the wind noise on the mic made it very difficult to hear the speaker. The group was using a nifty portable PA system that appeared to have a hand-held wireless mic. I could not tell if the speaker/amp, about the size of a carry-on suitcase, was battery powered or if there was a power cord that I could not see.
Above: The map shows the locations of some of the larger wildfires currently burning in Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia.
Firefighters continue to battle dozens of fires in the southern United States while the residents in the area try to figure out how to live with the smoke.
Fire managers are hoping for a break in the weeks-long dry period, but through Friday at least they should expect more of the same. However there is a chance for rain on Saturday.
Here we will look at six of the larger fires in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Party Rock Fire
The Party Rock Fire has been burning just north of Lake Lure, North Carolina since November 5. It has blackened 4,480 acres, an increase of 736 acres, and forced evacuations at Bat Cave and residences on the east side of Hwy 9. In recent days it has been most active on the north and southwest sides.
Rock Mountain Fire
The Rock Mountain Fire has burned 6,747 acres in the northeast corner of Georgia, an increase of 1,263 acres over the previous 24 hours primarily on the northeast and west sides. The Type 1 Incident Management Team reports that 75 structures are threatened, but none have been destroyed.
Above: The map shows the location of some of the larger wildfires currently burning in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
There are still dozens of wildfires burning in the southern United States, primarily in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Firefighters have slowed the progress of many of them but others are still spreading. The weather on Sunday was not quite as conducive to extreme fire behavior, but most areas are still extremely dry and have not had significant precipitation in weeks.
The weather forecast for the Asheville, NC area through Saturday, November 12, calls for more of the same weather — moderate winds, daily high temperatures in the 60s, and relative humidities in the 80s at night and the 30s in the afternoon.
Below are some statistics for the active fires in the Southern Geographic Area:
73 active fires
109,563 cumulative acres
103 hand crews assigned
Here is a look at five of the more active blazes:
Party Rock Fire
The Party Rock Fire has been burning just north of Lake Lure, North Carolina since November 5. It has blackened 3,457 acres and required evacuations in the Chimney Rock community. On Saturday and Sunday it grew by 574 acres, with most of the additional acres being on the southwest and northwest sides.
The Tellico Fire three miles south of Almond, North Carolina expanded by 3,791 acres over the weekend and now stretches across 13,676 acres after merging with another fire, the Ferebee Fire. It spotted across the Little Tennessee River to the east, but that spot was contained at about 100 acres. U.S. Highway 19 on the west side of the fire was closed on Sunday.
Above: The map shows the location of some of the larger wildfires in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia November 11, 2016.
(UPDATED at 4:59 p.m. ET November 11, 2016)
The intense wildfire activity that has been going on for weeks in the southeast United States ramped up a bit over the last 24 hours as extremely low relative humidities allowed some of the blazes to continue to spread aggressively Thursday night. A weather station southeast of Asheville, NC 9 miles northwest of the 977-acre Party Rock Fire recorded 9 percent RH early Friday morning. Night time humidities in that part of the country are usually far above 50 percent at night.
The good news is the conditions will moderate a little over the next several days after the passage of a cold front.
There are currently 31 uncontained wildfires in the Southern Geographic Area. Here some other numbers about the fires in the region (data from the National Interagency Coordination Center and the Southern Area Coordination Center):
10 Incident Management Teams deployed or en route (3 Type 1 teams, 6 Type 2 teams, and 2 Type 3 teams)
77,507 acres have burned in the fires that are still active
136 hand crews
12 air tankers (4 large and 3 single engine)
14 air attack ships
34 helicopters (11 large Type 1, 5 medium Type 2) and 18 Type 3)
Above: Party Rock Fire near Chimney Rock, NC. Photo by Cathy Anderson.
(UPDATED at 11:53 a.m. ET November 12, 2016)
The Party Rock Fire at Chimney Rock, North Carolina continued to spread on Friday and has now blackened 2,626 acres according to information from the Incident Management Team at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Areas under mandatory evacuation orders include the entire community of Chimney Rock, the Highway 74-A corridor west of Chimney Rock, Rumbling Bald Resort, and some areas in the Town of Lake Lure.
There are no reports of any structures being destroyed.
On Friday air tankers and helicopters dropped water and retardant to help slow the spread of the fire and to protect the communities.
A section of Highway 74-A was closed for a period of time Friday afternoon.
The weather has changed to be more in favor of the firefighters. After some single-digit relative humidities earlier in the week, on Saturday it should bottom out at 30 percent in the fire area after having risen to around 80 percent overnight. The wind will not be a major problem, and is predicted to be out of the northeast at 4 to 6 mph with gusts of 5 to 10 mph. The high temperature will be 53 degrees. Sunday will be about the same, but a little warmer and drier.
(Originally published at 2:01 ET November 11, 2016)
The rapid spread of the Party Rock Fire overnight is causing evacuations for some areas within the community of Chimney Rock, North Carolina. The fire is just west of Lake Lure, on the north side of Chimney Rock, and is 18 miles southeast of Asheville.
The fire started November 5 in Chimney Rock State Park and is being managed by Dan Brandon’s North Carolina Type 2 Incident Management Team. As of Thursday evening it had burned 977 acres and was being fought by 165 personnel.
Part of the reason for the increased fire activity over the last 24 hours was the extremely low relative humidity. It is not uncommon for this part of the country to have the RH go up near 100 percent at night, but Thursday afternoon it got down to 10 percent, went up to around 30 percent at midnight, then dropped as low as 9 percent before sunrise. At 2:04 p.m. ET on Friday it was 27 percent, still low for North Carolina. Aggravating the situation was 10 to 20 mph wind gusts out of the west and southeast.
The forecast calls for the RH to rise into the 40s later Friday afternoon and into the 70s during the night. The wind Friday afternoon will be out of the north and northwest at 8 mph with 20 mph gusts. The temperature will be around 60. These conditions will be challenging for firefighters
Saturday the RH will be in the 40s under sunny skies.