Cooler temperatures are making it easier on firefighters battling wildfires that have burned thousands of acres across the region, but continuing dry weather isn't helping.
Most of the state firefighters that met with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday at the foot of Mowbray Mountain have been with the Tennessee Division of Forestry for decades, but the wildfires they're fighting are unlike those they're used to.
"I just came to say thank you, I am really, really grateful for your work," Haslam said at the Hamilton County wildfire command post situated off of Dayton Pike in Soddy-Daisy.
Haslam also said he appreciated the help provided by governors of other states who have sent aid.
"People get depressed about our country all the time, but one of the things we should be encouraged about is we still help each other, even when we don't have to," he said, noting Tennessee officials return the favor when the need arises.
Forestry technician Brian Haddock said an unusual problem caused by the extremely dry ground is that even after firefighters snuff out the flames and build fire breaks, the dry earth underneath continues to burn out of sight.
Officials said that phenomenon is usually reserved for wildfires in coastal California.
"We had to fight one fire last night that had been out a month," Haddock said. The fire worked its way under the fire line firefighters built, he said.
Firefighters are also using leaf blowers to remove new fuel in the form of dead leaves falling from the trees.
"We've got eight to 10 fires in this area that we're having to run the containment lines every day," he said.
Forestry officials said that as of Wednesday there were two five-member strike teams and as many as 150 total personnel fighting the wildfires that have consumed more than 41,000 acres so far this year in Tennessee.
Haslam said the state has spent about $5 million battling the blazes.
Commissioner of Agriculture Jai Templeton said 57 percent of the fires in the region this year were set by arsonists. In a normal year, that figure is around 45 percent, Templeton said.
He and Haslam promised full prosecution of anyone caught setting fires.
Shannon Gann, Tennessee Division of Forestry area forester, said the Mowbray Mountain fire is 98 percent contained and the Flipper Bend fire is now 100 percent contained. The improved air quality this week is also helping firefighters, Gann said.
Jim Dale, assistant district forester for the Cumberland district, said it could be years before the amount of damage done by drought and wildfire is known. For hardwood trees, it could take a decade or longer, he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.
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