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Official: Rain ‘may not signal end of the fires’

By Brad Hicks

Rain is in the forecast, but the wet weather may not quell the threat of forest fires within the Cherokee National Forest.

“I don’t want to minimize the fact that this rain is really good news, it’s just that it may not – and it would be nice if it did – but it may not signal the end of the fires,” said Peter Frenzen, public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service. “That will just depend on what lands where.”

According to the National Weather Service, there is a 100 percent chance of showers today in Unicoi County, with a 50 percent chance this evening. There is also a chance of local showers forecast for both Saturday and Sunday.

Frenzen said about an inch of precipitation is predicted to fall throughout the northern portion of the Cherokee National Forest with the rain event occurring over the next day or so. But he said the impact this rainfall could have on dry conditions depends on just how much rain actually falls and the area receiving it.

According to a release from the Forest Service, the rainfall total from midnight Tuesday to late Tuesday morning for the Unaka Ranger District was 0.74 inches, and for the Watauga Ranger District was 0.82 inches forecasted to occur Tuesday afternoon.

“Fire officials are looking forward to more forecast rain through the end of week but, will wait and see how much actually falls and on how wide of an area,” the release states.   

Due to recent dry conditions, the Cherokee National Forest Watauga Ranger District went on “severity” in mid-October in anticipation of wildfires. Along with extended hours for Forest Service personnel responsible for monitoring potential and ongoing wildfire situations, the severity designation also leads to Forest Service districts receiving additional resources, such as out-of-state fire crews.

Frenzen said due to the recent dry conditions, a wildfire’s fuel – particularly the leaves, grass and wood found throughout a forested area – has gotten down to a “kiln-dried lumber” state, meaning it is even more susceptible to burning. Frenzen said a sustained period of rain is needed to dampen the natural fire fuel. He added even if the area receives “a good shot of rain” over the next few days, wood may quickly dry out, meaning the Cherokee National Forest would thrust back into a fire season once the rain passes.

In response to the dry conditions, the U.S. Forest Service earlier this month issued a fire ban for the Cherokee National Forest.

“The U.S. Forest Service is implementing a TOTAL FIRE BAN for the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee due to the extremely dry conditions, very high fire danger, and little chance of rain in the immediate forecast,” a notice issued by the Forest Service states.

The ban restricts the building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, charcoal or stove fire inside or outside developed recreation sites, and it restricts smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, or developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material.

“The total fire ban was necessary because of current conditions and the potential for wild fire,” Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris stated. “I want to remind national forest visitors that this ban applies to all areas of the Cherokee National Forest, including developed recreation areas. Your understanding and cooperation is appreciated.”

Days after the Forest Service issued this ban, Gov. Bill Haslam issued one of his own. Haslam declared a regional ban on burning in 51 counties in response to the ongoing drought and wildfires throughout middle and east Tennessee. Unicoi County is among the counties listed.

“Effective immediately, residents in counties covered by the regional ban are not permitted to conduct any open-air burning,” a release announcing Haslam’s declaration states. “The ban includes campfires, and burning of brush, vegetation, household waste or construction debris.”

This ban will remain in effect until Dec. 15.

Frenzen said the fire ban for the Cherokee National Forest remains in effect. Depending on the amount of rain the area receives and how long it fell, both Forest Service and county officials will reassess the total fire ban.

“We’ll be watching how much rain falls where, and then looking at how that affects the fire severity situation, fire danger situation, and the Forest Service and the counties, as well, and will reassess as that situation changes,” Frenzen said.

But Frenzen urged citizens to continue to heed the fire and burn bans. Even with the rain, he said, the threat of fire will remain present.

“It appears the long-term outlook for this region is dryer than normal, so this rain event will certainly bring some relief, kind of like a pause in things, but it’s likely that eventually that will dry out again,” Frenzen said. “How soon that is depends on how many of these shower events you get and when dry air comes again to start drying it out again. But the feeling is that, at least in the long term, it’s not over.”

And the smoke that has recently descended upon Unicoi County may not be over.

Wildfires continue to burn throughout the region, including in western North Carolina and Gatlinburg. Unicoi County has seen and felt the effects of these fires. Smoke from multiple wildfires burning just across the state line in western North Carolina blanketed the county on Nov. 8.

Heavy smoke was again prevalent throughout the county on Nov. 23. Frenzen said that smoke was the result of wind coming up from the south, pushing smoke from fires burning in North Carolina and Georgia into the area. On both Nov. 8 and Nov. 23, the atmosphere was stable, Frenzen said, and which, along with a layer of cooler air, causes the smoke to be “capped” in the valley, leaving it with no place to go.

When the wind shifted to come out of the north and west, it pushed the settled smoke out of the area, Frenzen said. Winds are again coming up from the south but the atmosphere has changed, and it is now classified as unstable, Frenzen said, meaning there is a greater possibility for thunderstorms and strong winds. This may lead to smoke blowing through Unicoi County rather than lingering.

“So we may get smoke just kind of moving through like on a big conveyor belt,” Frenzen said.

And because wind can cause even the smallest of fires to spread quickly, officials will continue to monitor it.

“All eyes right now are on the wind,” Frenzen said. “That seems to be the big concern.”

Smoke in the region has led the National Weather Service to recently issue air quality alerts for the area.

Frenzen also offered some tips for those driving through heavy smoke. He said drivers should slow down and utilize their vehicle’s headlights. He said if visibility is greatly impacted by the smoke, drivers should pull over and activate their hazard lights.