Wildfires cause closures
The following areas are closed to public access due to ongoing wildfires:* Cohutta Wilderness* North Chickamauga Creek Gorge Sate Natural Area* Flipper Bend* Trail between Cove Lake and Eagle Bluff* Laurel-Snow State Natural Area* Select roads in the Cherokee National Forest also remain closed. See http://www.fs.usda.gov/cherokee for details.
Legendary "CBS Evening News" anchor Walter Cronkite called Chattanooga America's dirtiest city in 1969, but Johnny Cash's 1963 hit "Ring of Fire" was a more accurate description of the metro area on Monday.
A heavy haze of smoke blanketed downtown Chattanooga on Monday morning, hearkening flashbacks to the city's days as a haven for industrial smog that restricted views of the nearby mountains.
This time, it was the mountains producing the haze, not urban factories.
Expansive wildfires continued burning on the rocky cliffs surrounding the area Monday, with little imminent hope for the rainfall so desperately needed to relieve the hundreds of firefighters tasked with controlling the flames throughout the region.
Apart from a few homes in Sequatchie County that were briefly threatened Monday before firefighters pushed the flames back, no other homes or lives were at risk, according to fire officials. However, the smoke that descended on the city proved to be one of the most widespread public nuisances to date, coming on the heels of a roughly month-long series of drought-spurred fires.
A Code Red air quality alert is in effect for most of East Tennessee, including the Chattanooga area, until 4 p.m. Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
"Ground level ozone concentrations within the region may approach or exceed unhealthy standards," according to the alert.
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau encouraged residents during the morning to avoid strenuous outdoor activity and stay indoors with the windows and doors closed.
Area doctors warned the problem can be particularly severe for those already suffering from breathing troubles.
"Our more vulnerable people - the elderly, the very young, as well as people who already have heart and lung diseases, bad sinuses, bad allergies, lung disease - if they go outside and breathe in a lot of that smog it can trigger an asthma attack or bronchitis attack," said Dr. Carlos Baleeiro, a pulmonary and critical care physician with CHI Memorial's Buz Standefer Lung Center.
The only real solution is to avoid working or exercising outdoors, he said. Masks probably won't do much good, Baleeiro said.
"Most of the masks you can buy at a store, the little paper masks, don't work, because the particles are so small," he said. "You would need a true isolation mask like we would use in a hospital. They fit tighter on the face, but if you are already prone to lung problems, and put on a tight-fitting mask, it doesn't make it any easier to breathe."
"This was the worst I have seen in 12 years of living here, " said Dr. John Boldt, a respiratory and critical care specialist at Erlanger hospital. "I have asthma, and it was bad for me."
Boldt warned that area students who are participating in outdoor sports should take precautions.
He suggested that if you are outdoors and get caught in the smoke, wet a handkerchief and put it over your face as you breathe. Drivers should set their vehicle's air conditioners to the "recirculate" cabin air setting instead of the setting that pulls in outside air.
"That will keep the smoke out of their car," he said.
Fire crews from as far west as Nevada rushed to quell the fires that ravaged woods in North Georgia and several Southeast Tennessee counties.
"We're stretched thin and everyone's tired," Tennessee Forestry Division spokeswoman Shannon Gann said early in the afternoon as smoke billowed from Walden's Ridge in the distance behind her.
The Walden's Ridge fire, burning in the Flipper Bend area north of the Falling Water community, started Saturday. It grew to 65 acres on Sunday and was more than 150 acres by Monday as Bureau of Land Management crews arrived from Nevada.
Air National Guard helicopters continued dumping water on Flipper Bend. Those same choppers also dumped water on two more fires in Sequatchie County that contributed to the overall smokiness of the area.
Another fire burned in Marion County's Prentice Cooper State Forest, establishing a firm wall of smoke visible to the northwest of downtown Chattanooga.
A two-week-old fire on Lookout Mountain in Dade County, Ga., stirred anew over the weekend, causing it to spread and send up smoke to the city's south.
Georgia Forestry commission spokeswoman Patricia Stockett said in an afternoon email that the fire was still within containment lines.
"There are pockets of unburned fuel within the burned area which will continue to smoke and burn in the days, possibly weeks to come," she wrote.
A fire on Rocky Face Mountain, near Dalton, Ga., continued burning Monday, as did a massive fire in the rural Cohutta Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee National Forest that started in mid-October. That fire had burned 4,319 acres by Monday morning, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Though officials in the Chattahoochee National Forest continued monitoring the blaze Monday, fire officials there acted with less urgency there than they did in more developed areas.
"Because of the extreme drought conditions and the location of this fire within the Cohutta Wilderness, one of the management objectives is to allow the fire to accomplish its natural ecological role," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Andrea Crain wrote in a morning update.
More than 100 firefighters in the Cherokee National Forest dealt with 18 different fires encompassing 830 acres to Chattanooga's east and northeast on Monday, according to Forest Service spokesman Terry McDonald.
Fall foliage, beautiful as it may be, presented problems for fire crews that, for weeks, have been working to remove fuels from the fire.
When leaves hit the ground, they present new fodder for brush-feeding fires.
"A re-burn happens when leaves, needles and vegetation fall onto the ground in areas where heat is still present," wrote Stockett, of the Georgia Forestry Commission, "and the heat can intensify to the point that the newly fallen fuel can ignite."
All of Dade, Walker, Catoosa, Whitfield, and Chattooga counties in North Georgia are considered to be in exceptional drought, which is the National Drought Mitigation Center's highest level of drought classification.
Several counties in Northeast Alabama are also considered to be in exceptional drought, as are parts or all of Marion, Hamilton, Bradley, and Polk counties in Southeast Tennessee.
WRCB-TV Meteorologist Paul Barys warned that another temperature inversion early today may result in a second smoky morning in the Chattanooga area. An inversion occurs when the air is warmer near the ground than at higher elevations, Barys said. Since cold air sinks, pollutants such as smoke are trapped near the ground and stay in place if there is no wind to move them around until temperatures rise.
But Barys said the wind should pick up Wednesday to between 15 and 20 miles per hour, which will get rid of the smoky haze, but also make it easier for the flames to jump across firefighters' fire breaks.
Contact staff writer David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.
Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673, sjohnson@timesfree press.com, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/noogahealth.