Firefighters tame 15 fires in Cherokee; arson blamed

This story was written by Quintin Ellison, originally published in The Sylva Herald on Nov. 17.

In 26 years as the Nantahala District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, Mike Wilkins has fought a lot of wildfires in Western North Carolina.

The veteran firefighter has never seen anything quite like this, however, at least not in the Southeast. “The vegetation is in a cured condition,” Wilkins said. “We’re at historic levels for combustibility.”

Low humidity; a spate of higher-than-normal temperatures; a lack of moisture that stretches deep into the soil subsurface; thick layers of autumn leaves – these ingredients, combined, have cooked up the out-of-control wildfires.

Most of what’s burning are leaves, grass and dead trees, according to the USFS. Recently fallen hardwood leaves are loosely compacted, igniting readily. Mountain laurel and rhododendron are abundant in some areas; they are very dry and are also burning easily. Where this brush is present, it acts as a ladder, allowing the fire to get from leaves on the ground into the shrub crowns and spread quickly, especially up slopes.

Last year, just 11,000 acres burned across the mountains. This year, in roughly eight weeks, 38,723 acres have been scorched.

During a Monday news conference, Gov. Pat McCrory said the wildfires have cost at least $10 million, various media outlets reported. The federal government will pay 75 percent of the cost. “We have California wildfires in North Carolina,” McCrory said.

Meanwhile, fire crews continue to mop up and patrol 15 fires on the Qualla Boundary that authorities have blamed on arsonists. A total of 755 acres have burned on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

The 728-acre Dicks Creek Fire near Sylva continues to smolder, but firefighters believe they have the blaze under control. Wilkins said a campfire was the likely source for this fire, though he didn’t rule out someone, as bandied about in the community, might have started the blaze while smoking a coon out of a tree. “It’s quite possible,” he said.

In a fire update Tuesday afternoon, the USFS said that in Cherokee and Sylva, “crews are focusing on the slow, dirty, time-consuming – but very important –tasks of walking the perimeters daily. These fires are not growing, and with containment at more than 90 percent, no additional growth is expected.”

Fire crews have made progress on containing fires around the region. “Acreage burned continues to increase, but containment is also increasing,” the update stated.

There is no significant chance of rain forecasted in the next 10 days. Typically, the autumn wildfire season ends with heavy moisture, either rain or snow, just before or after Thanksgiving, Wilkins said.

Tuesday, Great Smoky Mountain National Park officials banned campfires and open grills. Bans are already in place in the National Forest, by the N.C. Forest Service and locally.

“We are taking these extra precautions to help reduce the threat of wildfires and provide for visitor safety throughout the Park,” Chief Ranger Steve Kloster said. “We ask that everyone respect this ban and report any signs of fire.”

Last week, on Nov. 10, a state of emergency was declared in Jackson County, and in the four towns – Sylva, Webster, Dillsboro and Forest Hills – plus the Qualla Boundary, because of ongoing danger from wildfire.

In Jackson County, these restrictions and prohibitions are now in place:

• If wildfire is within 100 feet of homes and businesses, only emergency responders and other officials, plus owners and occupants, are allowed access.

• If necessary, the emergency management coordinator can compel mandatory evacuation (or voluntary) from threatened areas; additionally, the coordinator controls access to and movement within emergency areas.

There have been suspicious fires on Charleys Creek and in Pumpkintown, according to Jackson County Emergency Management Director Todd Dillard. The three fires were contained.