A breezy forecast for Wednesday and the extreme drought conditions gripping Southeast Tennessee have state forestry officials bracing for a possible spread of wildfires in the region before incoming rains bring relief late this week.
The state Division of Forestry's online wildfire map is peppered along the Cumberland Plateau and scattered throughout the Tennessee Valley, but most of the blazes are contained or controlled with a couple of exceptions, according to Joel Blackburn, assistant district forester for the Tennessee Division of Forestry. A contained fire is one that is no longer spreading; a controlled one has been extinguished, and active fires are those being fought now.
Of 37 wildfires in Southeast Tennessee, all but two were shown as contained or controlled Tuesday. Officials across Southeast Tennessee are urging people not to burn anything.
"Most everything's contained, but right now we have one active fire in Polk County," Blackburn said in a phone interview. "And we've got one in Rhea County we're still monitoring."
In Polk County, state and local firefighters are battling a 50-acre blaze that is 20% contained, according state officials and the wildfire map. Nine firefighters were working to contain the fire Tuesday afternoon on New Stansbury at McJunkin Road, according to a statement issued by the Polk County 911 Emergency Communication District's social media page.
No evacuations have been ordered, but Polk officials said fire crews and local residents are having problems with onlookers parking in driveways to watch the fire.
"If you are not a resident of this area, stay away," officials said in the statement.
At least 260 acres of Rhea County's almost 2,300-acre Laurel-Snow Pocket Natural Area burned and, according to a notice posted online by Tennessee State Parks, the segment of the Cumberland Trail running through it has been closed. A campfire ban also exists on the entire length of the trail, according to state officials.
The fire in the popular Rhea County destination Tuesday was about 90% contained, but it will be monitored while it's listed as active, Blackburn said.
While the Pocket Natural Area portion of the Cumberland Trail is closed, the rest of the trail is open, Kim Schofinski, spokesperson for Tennessee State Parks, said in an email. There are no other wildfire-related closures or restrictions for now, Schofinski said.
On the west side of the Cumberland Plateau, firefighters in Franklin County battled a blaze on almost 100 acres over the weekend as well as a handful of other smaller fires all now contained, according to a statement posted on social media by the North Franklin County Volunteer Fire Department.
"Please do not burn, and be mindful of anything that can cause a fire," fire hall officials said in the post.
An air quality alert was issued Sunday in Bradley County after smoke from a fire in Hamilton County on Raccoon Mountain became noticeable, according to a news released issued Sunday by the county Emergency Management Agency.
Hamilton County officials have issued a burn ban that is in place until further notice, according t0 the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau. On Tuesday, the bureau reported moderate air quality with an index of 97 and fine particles listed as the highest pollutant. When the air quality is moderate, unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion.
There is no statewide burn ban in place — and only one state burn ban in effect, in Morgan County — but the state is not issuing burn permits either, Blackburn said. That amounts to the same situation — no burning — but penalties for violations under a ban are higher than violations for burning without a permit. Restrictions on permits are usually temporary and are lifted when conditions improve, while bans are a more long-term restriction.
Rainfall at the end of the week will help, Blackburn said.
"I know we're increasing in drought, but the rainfall will affect the 'one-hour' fuels, which is what dictates our fire occurrence," he said. "So once the grasses and leaf litter get a little bit of rainfall, it'll slow down our activity. Yes, we're in a drought, the soil is dry, but if we get a little bit of moisture, the fuels will be wet enough we can issue permits again."
"One-hour fuels" or "dead fuels" refer to vegetation with a low enough moisture content to be readily burned by fire, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Over the state line in Walker County, wildfires burning in most areas were contained by Monday except for a 700-acre fire on Highway 157 that authorities determined was intentionally set. A $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest was announced by the Georgia Forestry Commission.
In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin declared a state of emergency Tuesday as firefighters responded to two wildfires amid dry conditions and high winds, according to The Associated Press.
The declaration allows Virginia to mobilize additional resources, staff and equipment to help with the response, the governor's office said in a news release.
The Quaker Run fire in Madison County and the Tuggles Gap fire in Patrick County broke containment lines over the weekend, and officials said additional resources are required to contain these fires and respond to any additional fires.
Virginia's fall fire season runs through Nov. 30, but officials said drought conditions have made these fires challenging to contain.
A state of emergency was also declared in a western North Carolina community where a wildfire burned hundreds of acres and threatened homes, the AP reported. Crews are fighting several separate blazes in forested areas of Virginia and Kentucky as wide swaths of those states face moderate to severe drought conditions and warmer than normal temperatures.