North Georgia wildfires raise surprising health risk: rabies

North Georgia wildfires raise surprising health risk: rabies

November 2nd, 2016 by Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News

In this Oct. 12 photo, Tennessee Division of Forestry and other personnel battle a wildfire burning atop Signal Mountain.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

A hot spot smolders in an area of burned woods Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2015, in Little River Canyon in Alabama.

A hot spot smolders in an area of...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Smoke billows on Fox Mountain in Dade County just above the Pilot Travel Center on Interstate 59, at exit 4, on Oct. 13, 2016. Winds ahead of a cold front pushed smoke toward Alabama from Rising Fawn, Ga.

Smoke billows on Fox Mountain in Dade County...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

As yet another wildfire blazes in North Georgia, health officials are urging the public to be cautious of some dangers less obvious than the fire itself: smoke inhalation and rabies.

On Wednesday afternoon, firefighters with the Georgia Forestry Commission were helping to battle the most recent local blaze, this time in the northwest corner of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

By 3 p.m., the fire had expanded to approximately 15 acres, causing park rangers to close several trails, said Kim Coons, chief of interpretation and resource education at the park.

"It's bound to happen because it's so dang dry," she said.

Coons said park employees were assisting firefighters with containing the fire by cutting breaks in the foliage. She could not say when responders expected to fully contain the blaze.

Meanwhile, another fire in Fannin County is eating away at the edge of the Cohutta Wilderness. The blaze along Rough Ridge had reached 2,771 acres as of 6 p.m. Tuesday.

While the Chickamauga fire does not present an immediate danger to any nearby structures or residents, public health officials say there could be more far-reaching dangers from wildfires, including dense hazes of smoke.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said via a news release that inhaling wildfire smoke could present serious and immediate health issues. Symptoms range from coughing fits and stinging eyes to full-blown asthma attacks.

"Smoke from a brushfire or wildfire is a mix of gases and particles from burning vegetation and other materials that can be harmful even to people who are healthy if there is enough smoke in the air," said Jennifer King, a spokeswoman for the department.

At special risk are pregnant women, older adults, children and anyone with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions. King urged residents to listen to news and health warnings about limiting exposure to smoke while outside.

"If you are told to stay indoors, stay indoors. And keep your indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed unless it is very hot outside. Run an air conditioner if you have one — seek shelter elsewhere if you do not and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed," she said.

Apart from the fire and smoke, residents should also be aware that wild or stray animals with rabies could start fleeing the burning forests into residential areas.

"Very few wild or stray animals have or carry rabies, but it is always best to leave them alone unless you or your pets are attacked," King said.

"Never approach a wild or stray animal exhibiting abnormal behaviors such as appearing to be friendly, disoriented, sick or aggressive."

Health officials say the easiest way to protect against rabies is to make sure pets have a current vaccination. If there is concern about potential exposure, residents should contact their local health office immediately for testing.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.