Wildfire grows to 200 acres on slopes of Signal Mountain [photos, video]

Wildfire grows to 200 acres on slopes of Signal Mountain [photos, video]

October 13th, 2016 by David Cobb in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 10/12/16. One of two Tennessee Air National Guard helicopters dumps water from above while working with the Tennessee Division of Forestry and other emergency personnel to continue to battle a wildfire burning atop Signal Mountain.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Gallery: October Wildfire on slopes of Signal Mountain

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POLL: Do you burn leaves and brush?

Tennessee forestry officials and Falling Water residents are ready for the community to start living up to its name.

But the only water falling on a growing brush fire along the Walden's Ridge bluff on Wednesday was from Boston Branch Lake atop the mountain.

A pair of Tennessee Air National Guard Black Hawk helicopters spent the day scooping water from the lake and dumping it on the flanks of a fire that had grown to an estimated 200-220 acres by Wednesday morning.

On the ground, a team of state forestry and state parks workers coordinated the air strikes and continued cautionary measures to ensure the flames do not threaten the residential communities at the top and bottom of the mountain that jut from Roberts Mill Road.

"We're in it for the long haul," said Jim Dale, assistant district forester for the Cumberland district. "Whatever we have to do to keep personnel on the fire, we're going to do it until we get it contained."

Rain would be the most helpful resource, but none is expected in the Chattanooga area for the next several days.

Forest service help from West Tennessee drove in to help replace the manpower lost as the last volunteer firefighters returned to their jobs Wednesday after four long days of digging fire breaks by hand.

Others from the forestry division came from the Highland Rim district, which is west of Chattanooga but east of the Tennessee River.

"We only do that when we're in a really bad situation like we are now with the drought and we have prolonged fires that are going on and we have to rotate our people out to get rest," Dale said.

In total, 21 forestry service personnel and four state parks employees were engaged in the firefight Wednesday as the drought persisted with little sign of relief.

High winds that helped embers spread beyond the fire's containment lines over the weekend have calmed, but National Weather Service meteorologist Matthew Anderson said it's unlikely the area will receive precipitation in the next few days.

The drought covering a large portion of Hamilton County is classified as D-4, he said.

"That means exceptional drought," Anderson said. "And that's the highest category there is."

As the Black Hawk helicopters refueled at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, forestry officials Jim Lane, Shannon Gann and Frank Westwood took a lunch break along a dirt path near the bottom of the mountain, a few hundred yards removed from the fire.

The dirt path extends from a residential street that cuts through a neighborhood with dozens of homes.

"Now they're more calm than they were at first," Lane said of resident's reaction to the nearby blaze.

Still, many kept a close eye on news about the fire. A closed Facebook group that began Monday, called "Updates on Signal Mountain Emergencies," had 707 members by late Wednesday afternoon.

Users of the page posted photos, questions and news articles about the ongoing fire.

One area landowner, who did not want to be identified, sounded concerned but not overly worried after he walked through the woods near the fire.

"It's a brush fire, and we've never lost a house in Tennessee to a brush fire," he said.

Speculation abounded Wednesday over whether the fire started on private property or the state-owned Cumberland Trail.

Dale said that — to his knowledge — the forestry division has not investigated the matter beyond identifying a camp fire as the likely cause.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, took a break from door-to-door campaigning Wednesday to foray into the woods with a friend who owns land in the area of the fire.

"I'm just out here looking, seeing what's going on," Gardenhire said. "I just got a call from some constituents. Even though it's not my district, I'm still concerned about it."

Gardenhire added that seeing how a state agency operates — the forestry division in this case — is helpful for him.

The total bill for the firefight figures to be significant with man hours, travel expenses and equipment costs. Dale said that will all be tallied up.

First, there is a fire to extinguish.

"This fire is stubborn," he said. "But we are, too."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

Gallery: Brush fire still blazing

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