More rain expected late Monday and early Tuesday could return air quality conditions in western North Carolina to normal for the first time since a rash of wildfires broke out at the beginning of November.
Last week's rainfall helped firefighters get to full containment of the Party Rock fire in Rutherford, Buncombe, and Henderson Counties, as well as the Clear Creek fire in McDowell County. That fire burned 3,163 acres. Many firefighters who had been battling that blaze were dispatched to Gatlinburg to help out there.
But just because fires are at or near 100% contained does not mean they are out. Federal firefighter Sean Collins is with the Southern Area Blue Team, currently stationed in Macon County. He says "because some of these areas are very remote (with) very steep terrain...some of the fires are still there, even with the rain in it, they are in the interior of downed logs, downed trees, and they’re going to be smoking and eating away at that vegetation for some time.” Collins adds that 'smoking' will continue within the containment lines, and it will take another several inches of rain before it gets extinguished. “A good 20 to 25 of those fires are 100 percent contained", says Collins. "They were relatively small—from a half acre, to maybe 100 acres—it’s much easier to get into those and check under every log and in every tree, and to a point where we can be confident that that fire is out. When you’re dealing with a site that’s 20,000 acres, with that steep rugged backwoods terrain, we can’t get everywhere.”
Air quality has almost returned to normal in western North Carolina. Most of the region will be under a 'Code Green' or 'good' alert the third consecutive day. The four westernmost counties - Clay, Cherokee, Graham, Macon - will be under no alert. Smoke is coming not just from wildfires in western North Carolina, but from flames in neighboring South Carolina and Georgia.
The Camp Branch fire in Macon County started much later than the other wildfires that have been plaguing the area. It's now burning 3,210 acres in Macon County, a sharp increase from 800 acres when the fire started last week. But crews have been able to increase containment of the fire to 85%. Winds helped propel flames up the eastern side of the Wayah Bald. The Camp Branch fire has already destroyed a private cabin and burned the wooden roof of the historic Wayah Bald Tower. Closures on Wayah Road, State Route 1013, have been lifted.
Crews are coming to close to fully containing much larger wildfires in the state's westernmost region. The Tellico in Macon and Swain Counties is the largest, burning 13,874 acres. It's 100% contained. The Boteler fire is burning 9,036 acres in Clay County and is now at 100% containment. The Maple Springs and Old Roughy fires in Graham County are 100% contained. It's burning 7,788 acres as crews extend containment lines near the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area.
All but one of the fires (Boteler was caused by a lightning strike) are believed to be caused by man made forces. Authorities made their first arson arrest last week for two small fires in Macon County. Investigations continue into the other fires. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory announced there will be a $10-thousand reward for anyone with information that leads an arrest in the case.
While the rain is expected to make a dent in the wild fires in Western North Carolina, it also raises awareness about the potential for mudslides. WCQS’s Helen Chickering spoke with Joshua Palmer, a Hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Greenville. Palmer says they are monitoring conditions and at this point the risk seems pretty low. Mudslides in Western States affected by wildfires are well studied, but this is fairly new territory for the Southeast, where the topography is different, says Palmer.
JP: Well one of things that’s unique here is the slope and type of vegetation that we have in the Appalachians compared to out West. Also size of fires, while quite large for our area, are quite small compared to fires we see out West. So how debris flow activity out West compares to what we would see out East is very difficult to determine and a lot of research needs to be done.
There are individuals from the U.S. Forest Service who are going out this week to go out to those areas to assessing the state of the land and the likelihood for debris flow from these burned areas. It is a great opportunity for research.
HC: Based on the rain we're expecting, what's the risk in our area?
JP: I think for most part we’re going to see some very beneficial rain fall I think that’s the main that’s the takeaway. I think the likelihood of seeing enough rainfall for scattered to widespread issues in terms of flooding or landslides with rainfall we’re expected to see through the end of the week. The reports we’re seeing on the ground right now from the people doing the hard work of fighting these fires is that the soil is still able to receive and take in moisture as it comes in. I think overall the likelihood of (mudslide) activity from burned areas is much lower than it would be out West, certainly not zero and certainly something we’re going to be keeping an eye on, but overall most people should be grateful that we’re going to be receiving much needed rainfall.