Fire officials said Thursday evening it could be as long as two weeks before they are able to put out a stubborn wildfire burning in the rocky crevices on the steep west side of Lookout Mountain in Dade County, Ga.
Firefighters had to pull back from the area for fear of lightning strikes when storm clouds gathered around 4:30 p.m. Thursday. They said even a soaking rain is unlikely to extinguish the flames unless it lasts for several days.
The fire is at the base of a cliff midway down the mountain and is burning in a thick layer of what firefighters call "duff," a combination of leaves, tree limbs and other organic material.
A thunderstorm will only wet the top 2-3 inches of the fire and won't extinguish the embers burning underneath, said Jeff Schardt with the U.S. Forest Service.
That was not the word nearby homeowners wanted to hear.
"I've been scared to death," said Lynn Hartman, whose home is on the mountain edge in the Maggie Bluff subdivision.
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Hartman was preparing sandwiches for several members of the West Brow Fire and Rescue Service on Thursday evening, some of whom were watching smoke rise from beyond the tree line at the edge of her property.
The West Brow volunteers already had stretched a fire hose from their truck to the rear of her property and a couple of staffers said they planned to stay outside Hartman's home all night to keep an eye on the fire.
Although the flames are less than a mile from the exclusive Maggie Bluff subdivision, there is no immediate danger, according to John McCutcheon, acting chief ranger for the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Firefighters on Thursday also laid hoses along Jackson Gap Trail and Bluff Trail so they can set small fires to burn off underbrush on either side of the trails and contain the flames in the space between.
Park Superintendent Brad Bennett arrived at the firefighters' staging area Thursday afternoon for a briefing. Firefighters told him this fire will have to be watched for a long time, given its location and the extreme drought in the area.
"We can't just put in some hand lines and walk away," Schardt told Bennett. "The fire could come back, and you've got million-dollar homes around here."
A lone helicopter circled for much of the day, dropping water on the flames. Firefighters said they were hampered a bit because nearby ponds were dried up and it was not easy finding an accessible source of water.
Large fixed-wing airplanes, which can carry more water than the helicopters, are fighting fires in the western states. "There's not a large aircraft available this side of the Mississippi," said Heath Morton, chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission in Dade County.
One Lookout Mountain resident who lives close to the flames said she never expected a fire to get so close.
"It's heaven up here — and then this happens," said Julie Lutz, who lives with family members in a home on one of several roads that dead-end along the bluff. Lutz said she and her family became anxious Wednesday. "The smoke started coming more in this direction," she said.
But by Thursday, the flames had headed south, down the mountainside.
McCutcheon said the fire apparently started after embers from an illegal campfire blew off a rocky bluff into woods below.
The fire is located on Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park land about halfway down the side of the mountain, southwest of Covenant College. It covered an estimated 20 acres Thursday morning, McCutcheon said.
He said the National Park Service is investigating the cause of the fire and that whoever built the campfire could face federal charges.
McCutcheon said about 50 firefighters would be available Thursday and he hoped that number could grow to 75 by the weekend if the fire is not contained by then.