PIKEVILLE, Ky. – Rain has slowed an outbreak of forest fires that has charred about 2,300 acres in the mountains of eastern Kentucky over the past week.
“We’re hopeful that it will be enough to control the fires,” said Gwen Holt, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Division of Forestry. “But we’re looking at a dry weekend, so we could see another increase in fires.”
Holt said 118 fires were reported over the past week, before soaking rain moved through most of the region late Thursday and Friday.
Pete Geogerian, a forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Jackson, said most of the rain was expected to end Friday and the forests would begin drying out again over the weekend. However, more light rain could arrive by midweek that would dampen the forests again, he said.
“The key is to keep these systems coming through,” Geogerian said. “Hopefully, we can just keep getting these systems every four or five days that drop a quarter to a half inch of rain.”
For the year, firefighters have battled 1,503 fires that burned more than 26,000 acres. Most of them occurred during the spring fire season in March and April.
Holt advised people who live in forested areas to take steps to protect their homes from wildfires, just in case they reach the epidemic proportions of years past. She suggested cleaning out gutters, removing leaves from lawns, stacking firewood away from houses and trimming trees that overhang roofs.
“All these things are fuel, and if a fire should come close to someone’s property, these fuels could bring the fire right up to the homes,” Holt said.
The region has been largely spared from wildfires over the past two years because of an unusually large amount of rainfall that kept forested areas too wet to burn.
“The bad news about that is, with the low number of fires for the past two years, the fuel in the forest is a lot heavier,” Holt said.
She said much of the region now has three years worth of leaves covering the forest floor, plus dried tree branches broken from winter ice storms and dead pine trees killed by an infestation of beetles over the past four years.
“All these are just very volatile fuels,” she said. “Should it dry out, we’re just fearful of what could happen.”
Holt said foresters don’t want a repeat of the 2000 and 2001 forest fire seasons, which were the worst in more than a decade.
About 133,300 acres of Kentucky forest land were charred in 2000, followed by about 163,300 acres in 2001.
“Arson continues to be the leading cause,” Holt said. “It’s sad. It’s puzzling. We don’t know why people want to set the woods on fire.”
Perrin de Jong, director of the environmental group Kentucky Heartwood, said fires in Appalachian forests generally burn only ground clutter and do not pose substantial threat to life or property.
“We don’t have the kinds of problems with fires like they have in the West,” he said. “We just don’t get the catastrophic fires. It’s not a huge dealhere.”