Relentless fires spread smoke, fear in the South
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.
Eric Willey watches a helicopter drop water on a wildfire Wednesday in Tate City, Ga.