South­ern wild­fires have threat­ened com­mu­ni­ties on edge

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS -

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 duress.

“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, Ge­or­gia.

Here, these fires don’t sleep. They burn through the night, through the now-des­ic­cated tin­der of de­cid­u­ous forests ac­cus­tomed to wet, hu­mid sum­mers and au­tumns.

“It doesn’t die down af­ter dark,” said fire Capt. Ron Tha­lacker, who came from Carlsbad, New Mex­ico, with a fire en­gine that now draws wa­ter from streams and ponds to spray on hotspots in Ge­or­gia’s Rabun County, near the epi­cen­ter of the south­ern 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, Mon­tana.

Cul­lum spoke briefly, as flames rolled down a moun­tain­side be­hind him. Then he or­dered every­one to get out. “We need to leave,” he said sternly, ush­er­ing peo­ple to move down a rocky dirt road.

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.

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