Re­lent­less fires spread smoke, fear in the South

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Jeff Martin

TIGER, Ga. — Thick smoke has set­tled over a wide area of the south­ern Ap­palachi­ans, where dozens of un­con­trolled wild­fires are burn­ing through decades of leaf lit­ter, and peo­ple breathe in tiny bits of the for­est with ev­ery gulp of air.

It’s a con­stant re­minder of the threat to many small moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties, where re­lent­less drought and now per­sis­tent fires and smoke have peo­ple un­der siege.

More than 5,000 fire­fight­ers and sup­port per­son­nel, in­clud­ing many vet­er­ans of wild­fires in the arid West, and 24 he­li­copters are bat­tling blazes in the fire zone, which has spread from north­ern Georgia and eastern Ten­nessee into eastern Ken­tucky, the western Caroli­nas and parts of sur­round­ing states.

More than 30 large fires re­main un­con­tained, fed­eral of­fi­cials said Wed­nes­day. Fires across the re­gion have burned 128,000 acres, or about nine times the size of Man­hat­tan.

“A lot of the ladies just went to tears and said this hap­pens in other places, it doesn’t hap­pen here,” pas­tor Scott Cates said as towns­peo­ple do­nated wa­ter, cough drops and other sup­plies for the fire­fight­ers at the Liberty Bap­tist Church in Tiger.

The fires burn through the night, through the nowdry tin­der of de­cid­u­ous forests ac­cus­tomed to wet, hu­mid sum­mers and au­tumns.

“It doesn’t die down af­ter dark,” says fire Capt. Ron Tha­lacker, who came from Carls­bad, N.M., and is lead­ing a crew spray­ing hot spots in Georgia’s Rabun County, near the epi­cen­ter of the fires.

Large, wind-driven fires that scorch pine forests in the West of­ten burn in the tree tops and mel­low out at night, but these fires are cling­ing to the ground and ac­tively burn­ing 24 hours a day, said fire­fighter Chad Cul­lum of Billings, Mont.

Tim Free, a life­long res­i­dent, broke down with emo­tion as he de­scribed how el­derly neigh­bors are strug­gling with re­lent­less smoke, so thick it blocks the sun.

“Ev­ery­body is pulling to­gether,” Free said as dona- tions ar­rived at the church. “That’s where you see your com­mu­nity pull to­gether, and that’s what we’re for­tu­nate to have here is peo­ple who care about peo­ple.”

In­side t he church, where sev­eral women were as­sem­bling care pack­ages, Brit­tany Keener said “we re­ally need lu­bri­cat­ing eye drops!”

Any­one liv­ing through this smoke needs them, but par­tic­u­larly peo­ple work­ing to con­tain the blazes in the forests, where Keener said a burn­ing em­ber fell into one fire­fighter’s eye.

“Any­body that’s out­side of their homes is go­ing to have to have some­thing that will ba­si­cally lu­bri­cate their throats — cough drops, lozenges or even a stick of pep­per­mint,” Free said. “Just to get a lit­tle lu­bri­cant in your eyes is some­thing that’s needed daily be­cause of the smoke.”

Na­tion­ally, “there’s a pretty good abil­ity to help out the South right now,” said Jen­nifer Jones, a spokes­woman with the U.S. For­est Ser­vice.

Re­in­force­ments have ar­rived from at least 37 states, the Dis­trict of Columbia and Puerto Rico, she said.

CUR­TIS COMP­TON/AT­LANTA JOUR­NAL-CON­STI­TU­TION

Eric Wil­ley watches a he­li­copter drop wa­ter on a wild­fire Wed­nes­day in Tate City, Ga.

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