North Georgia wildfires: 1 dead, as crews work through thanksgiving

North Georgia wildfires: 1 dead, as crews work through thanksgiving

23 November 2016

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USA — Firefighters will work through Thanksgiving to make sure North Georgia wildfires that have been contained don’t reignite, officials said Wednesday.

“This occurs when dry leaves or other vegetation falls on smoldering ashes or hot spots left from the original fire,” Georgia Foresty Commission spokeswoman Hanna Cowart said. “Re-burns can easily lead to more serious concerns, so we have crews monitoring established fire breaks on a regular basis.”

Officials have coordinated with Antioch Baptist Church in Calhoun and New Salem Community Center in Rising Fawn to make sure crews enjoy a meal away from loved ones.

While there have been no reports of reignited fires, crews will work through the holiday to contain fires already burning.

“They are cleaning out fire breaks and extinguishing any re-burns as quickly as possible,” Cowart said. “We also have air resources monitoring the area closely looking for any new smoke that could signify re-burns or new fires.”

Earlier, Georgia recorded its first death since wildfires started torching thousands of acres across the state.

One person died and one was injured in a fire in Greene County, Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett said.

“Our investigators have determined that this wildfire resulted from a structural fire spreading, so the fatality was technically the result of a structural fire” in the 1100 block of Crumblin Road, Burnett said.

She said she didn’t know the name of the victim or the condition of the person injured in the blaze.

In another fire off Gates Road in Meriwether County, a landowner accused of illegally burning materials was critically injured. That person’s condition was not known.

No firefighters were injured in either blaze.

The injuries were not the first stemming from the wildfires. Previously, a Department of Natural Resources technician was thrown from a utility terrain vehicle while helping battle a blaze near Johnson Mountain in Bartow County, DNR spokeswoman Robin Hill said. The technician had several minor spine fractures but was expected to recover.

Firefighting crews have focused on two wildfires in the North Georgia mountains.

A fire at Rock Mountain in Rabun County, one of the largest active wildfires in Georgia, continues to spread. Crews plan to push back the fire’s perimeter, requiring people to leave their homes.

Officials have not announced when the evacuations affecting 142 homes will go into effect, but the first step is clearing a residential area from debris so workers can manage the fire’s spread.

RELATED: Where are the active fires?

The Rock Mountain blaze spanned 18, 069 acres Wednesday, up from 14,757 acres Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service reported. It is located about 10 miles north of Clayton in northeast Georgia and was 35 percent contained Wednesday.

The blaze isn’t expected to be fully contained until Dec. 15, officials said.

Before that happens, the fire could increase to 30,000 acres, federal officials said Monday during a packed public briefing.

As winds pushed the fire back toward itself on the north, crews swept leaves and worked to decrease the intensity of the fire by lighting their own smaller blazes Tuesday near Bettys Creek Road.

Bettys Creek and Patterson Gap residents moved firewood away from their homes, cleaned their gutters and roofs and moved outdoor furniture away from structures or inside their homes.

Crews included 467 people Wednesday, a slight increase from the roughly 458 people who worked Tuesday. They used six helicopters, four water tankers, four bulldozers and 24 fire engines in their efforts to keep the fire contained.

MAP: Georgia’s largest fires

The Rock Mountain fire, one of more than 4,370 blazes this year, is hardly the largest fire the state has seen. That designation belongs to a fire that burned more than 115,300 acres in Ware County in 2007.

MORE PHOTOS: Scenes from North Georgia

Wind near the largest ongoing fire in the state, in Rough Ridge in Fannin County, sent leaf litter landing on hot spots, causing isolated areas of smoke.

On Wednesday, that fire spanned the same 27,870 acres in the Cohutta Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest it did Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service reported.

The fire hasn’t been spreading and containment increased from 59 percent Tuesday to 66 percent Wednesday — both good signs.

Crews continued to work to minimize erosion, scatter piles of trees and brush created by firefighting activity and clear drainage of debris.

Crews included 219 people who used two bulldozers, 11 fire engines, two helicopters and five water tanks.

The blaze probably won’t be completely contained until Nov. 30, according to a report from the National Interagency Coordination Center, which helps coordinate efforts between multiple agencies.

Firefighting crews in North Georgia added hundreds of people from across the country last week. Rita Baysinger, who came from Colorado to help the U.S. Forest Service as a spokeswoman, said finding crews to help fight fires has taken time because the fire season didn’t end until October for western states.

She also said firefighting efforts won’t diminish for the holidays. Instead, Baysinger said the agency will continue a rotation that cycles firefighters in and out to avoid exhaustion.

The ongoing fires have exhausted resources and required assistance from agencies including the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Corrections, Georgia State Patrol and local fire and law enforcement departments.

RELATED: Forest fires can be friends as well as foes

Authorities took about 72 calls about wildfires Tuesday. Twelve were still active Wednesday, officials said, most were fully contained.

Following drought-related disaster declarations in 22 Georgia counties, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced loans are available to businesses taking a substantial financial hit due to the drought. Those businesses can apply through June 26, 2017.

Local officials have said the effects of the drought are wide-reaching, and the risk of wildfires is among the most severe.

Douglas County reported 27 calls about grass, wood and illegal burning fires from Friday to Sunday. That’s not including a brush fire that torched just more than an acre and burned for more than three hours Monday.

It ‘s so dry that tossing a cigarette bud out of a car window while driving can spark flames that stretch across acres, Douglas County fire spokesman Wes Tallon said. The county stopped granting permits Friday that allow people to burn outdoors. Douglas is in an “exceptional” drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor’s most severe designation.

A total fire ban is in place in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.

And similar restrictions banning open air fires, smoking, fire pits, grills and rings kicked in last week along the Appalachian National Scene Trail. The trail begins in Springer Mountain in Fannin County and stretches 78.6 miles through North Georgia.

RELATED: Map: Georgia’s drought and where water restrictions apply

In metro Atlanta, as with counties throughout Georgia, stiff new watering restrictions took effect last week.

The metro area has avoided the worst of the wildfires and more frequently dealt with smoke from the North Georgia fires and poor air quality.

Wednesday could be the 38th day without measurable rainfall in Atlanta, the National Weather Service reported.

The record, set in 1884, is 39 days.

WEATHER: Rain chances slim

The only indication Atlanta might not meet the record is a 20 percent chance of rain that could bring a few sprinkles overnight Wednesday and into early Thursday morning.

“And most of us won’t get a thing,” Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Karen Minton said. “But there could be a few patches here and there.”

In far North Georgia, a weakening cold front could bring less than a tenth of an inch of rain.

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