KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Forest fires that have burned more than 119,000 acres in eight states and have people from Asheville to Atlanta smelling smoke continue to rage through most of the Southeast.
More than 6,300 firefighters, some from as far as Alaska, are fighting fires that range from just a few acres to one in the Cohutta Wilderness in northern Georgia that has burned 27,000. That fire has burned more than a month and is just 20 percent contained.
A total of 74 aircraft, including Black Hawk helicopters and BAE tanker jets, have been used.
The Southern Coordination Center in Atlanta has overseen the fire response, coordinating efforts with a myriad of federal, state and local agencies and fire departments. The center’s Dave Martin said he can’t be sure if the extent of the fires is unprecedented, but it is the biggest he can remember.
“It has been quite a while since we had had this number of large fires at this many locations,” he said. “The last time it was comparable was in 2001 and even then it wasn’t this busy.”
States that have been dealing with fires are Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. The fires taken together are even starting to rival the mammoth blazes of the west. The Big Sur fire in late July burned around 132,000 acres.
A severe drought that has gripped the South -- in some areas since spring -- has been the big catalyst.
“The lower humidity and significant lack of precipitation for more than three months have made a perfect environment for fires to spread,” said the center’s Adam Rondeau. “It makes them faster and stronger.”
Rondeau said there have been 50 major fires – fires that burn more than 100 acres.
No lives have been lost. Only minor injuries and minimum property damage have been reported, Martin said.
Several structures have been damaged including one residence, a house near Trenton, Ga.
However, the smoke, especially dense in the Tennessee Valley in cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga, has sent hundreds of people to emergency rooms with respiratory problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index has in the past few weeks occasionally placed affected cities in the red “unhealthy” level, an indication that “everyone may begin to experience health effects.”
The Appalachian Trail is closed in parts of Georgia and North Carolina. Campfires have been banned in the 655,598-acre Cherokee National Forest that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee line with stretches both north and south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest, which is also closed to burning.
And, the drought and forest fire situation could go on for months, experts say.
“The forecast for December, January and February show the odds of below-normal precipitation are high for the Southeast,” said Matthew Rosencrans, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, beef cattle aren’t getting their hay in East Tennessee and cattlemen are selling off some stock. Farmers from the cotton fields of north Alabama to the tobacco farms of North Carolina are taking their hits. The Tennessee Valley Authority has cut in half the amount of hydroelectric power it usually generates this time of year from its reservoirs in East Tennessee to hold back water for what may be ahead.
Even the Christmas tree salesmen are concerned the drought and stress will cause the trees to have a shorter healthy span when they reach living rooms.
“I used to say the trees would stay green (through the holiday season) without a problem,” said Leo Collins, who owns Bluebird Christmas Tree Farm north of Knoxville, “but I’m not so cocky this year.”