Cherokee Forest road shut by wildfire

Cherokee Forest road shut by wildfire

July 9th, 2012 by Shelly Bradbury in News

Cherokee National Forest sign tile

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

A large wildfire forced Forest Service officials at Cherokee National Forest to close Forest Service Road 77 and all trails in the Chilhowee Recreation Area on Sunday.

The fire seems to have started when high winds blew trees into power lines about a half-mile east of the Ocoee Ranger Station next to Parksville Lake, according to spokesman Terry McDonald.

The fire was reported at 4 p.m. Friday. It had burned about 200 acres when Forest Service officials announced the closure Sunday afternoon, and McDonald said he expects the blaze to consume about 1,600 acres before it can be contained.

"It's been a tough one; it's been a challenge," he said. "Conditions are just so dry. And it is extremely steep and rough in there. It crossed our lines three times in the last day and a half, so we've pulled back."

Acting Ocoee District Ranger Andy Gaston said the trails were closed as a precaution.

"Our latest contingency firelines are located approximately two miles south of the recreation area," he said. "We will reopen the area as soon as possible."

The Parksville Lake Campground was without power Sunday afternoon and could be closed if power wasn't restored by evening, officials said.

About 100 people from various departments, including the Forest Service, Tennessee Department of Forestry, TWRA and state parks, are fighting the fire today, McDonald said. The effort includes three water-dropping helicopters and two bulldozers. There was no estimate Sunday evening for when the fire will be completely contained.

The forest has seen an unusually high number of early summer wildfires this year, McDonald said.

"In the past two weeks, we've had numerous fires in the forest that have burned over 1,000 acres," he said. "That's really uncommon for this time of year. Our fire season is usually in the spring and the fall. Folks have been going hard here for the last two weeks."

Fighting fires in the summer months is especially difficult because of the hot and dry conditions, McDonald said.

"It's been running around 100 degrees every day, or the upper 90s, and the firefighters on the line have to put up with that and with the smoke," he said. "It's been tough."