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Nearby wildfires mark an ominous start to fire season

By Tate Davis
Freelance Writer

Five years ago this week, wildfires in and around Gatlinburg were raging out of control, eventually burning some 17,000 acres and more than 2,000 buildings while killing 14 and injuring 190. Units from Shady Valley and Neva were part of the response to the massive fire. According to the Tennessee Division of Forestry, though the Gatlinburg fire captured national attention, it was one of 1,427 that burned 44,027 acres in the catastrophic 2016 fire season.
Six weeks into this fire season and with little chance of rain over the next week, weather conditions across the region rapidly present significant wildfire danger.
A fire broke out Saturday on Pilot Mountain in Surry County, North Carolina. On social media, Pilot Mountain Mayor Evan J. Cockerham said, “Despite [firefighters] heroic efforts, strong winds and dry fuels have now spread the fire over a few hundred acres.” Online images appeared to show
the entire knob of the
famous peak engulfed in flame. North Carolina State Parks and Recreation announced the closure of Pilot Mountain State Park “likely all week” as firefighters from across that state are responding.
Sunday afternoon, another large wildfire was reported along the border of Watauga and Wilkes counties in the Triplett, North Carolina
area. According to WataugaOnline.com, multiple agencies from three counties are currently battling that blaze as well.
“We’re actually sitting on pins and needles,” said Kevin Colson, Executive Director for Johnson County 911.
“At any time, the pagers could go off.”
Adding to the high level of concern, every fire department is at an all-time low in volunteers.
“We’ve had to go to a four-department initial response on structure fires just to have enough people to fight the fire,” Colson said. “I want
to emphasize the outdoor burning safety information and guidelines at BurnSafeTN.org.”
Outdoor burning is discouraged at this time. Burn permits from the Tennessee Division of Forestry (TDF) are required between October 15 and May 15. Those can be obtained online at BurnSafeTN.org or by calling 877-350-2876 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Mountain City residents must call 423-727-6754 for burn permits per the town ordinance. If you burn, use extreme caution to keep it under control and have fire suppression equipment readily available. Burning in the evening hours when there is no wind is safest.
Now is the time to take preventative measures recommended by the National Fire Protection Association to help protect your
home from wildfires. Colson emphasized, “dead leaves and debris are often the
reason fire gets to the
house.”
Some essential items include pruning trees so that their lowest branches are six to ten feet above the ground, removing debris under decks or porches, and removing flammable materials within thirty feet of structures.
Although the West
generally has more enormous wildfires, more wildfires occur every year in the Southeast.
Heavy leaf litter on the ground and above-average temperatures make conditions ripe for that trend to continue.