By David Rogers. November 22, 2016. BLOWING ROCK, NC — An estimated 800 acres have already been consumed, but if emergency service commanders get their way, what has now been dubbed as the “Horton Fire” will be confined to less than 1300 acres.
COVER IMAGE: View from the Blue Ridge Mountain Club entrance on State View Rd. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
That was a key takeaway from Tuesday afternoon’s press briefing at the media staging center setup at Laurel Fork Baptist Church. While 55 structures are threatened, incident commander Rusty Dellinger, a Ranger from Caldwell County told the more than a dozen media outlets represented, if the wildfire jumps the perimeter established by the fire crews, more than 200 homes could be threatened and more acreage at risk.
“Up to this point,” Dellinger observed, “it has only been woodlands that have been affected. We have no reports of any structural damage.”
We currently have 55 structures immediately threatened, but beyond our current footprint there are at least 200 more.
The perimeter is loosely defined as Reynolds Parkway on the north (the main artery of Blue Ridge Mountain Club), Sampson Road on the south, Dugger Firetower Rd. on the east.
Dellinger conceded that this was the worst wildfire he has seen in his many years of service in the region. “In my 30-year career, I don’t know that I have seen a fire this large in this area.”
“Leaf litter, brush, rhododendron, and mountain laurel is providing most of the fuel for this fire,” Dellinger said, “although last night we saw some torching as trees were being consumed. At times, this has been very intense.”
Blowing Rock Emergency Services Director Kent Graham explained to Blowing Rock News in an interview that the recent and ongoing drought in Western North Carolina, including the High Country, has created ideal conditions for wildfires, whether started as a result of human interaction with the environment, or acts of Mother Nature.
“And today’s low humidity near 10% doesn’t help things,” he noted. “The KBDI Index (Keetch-Byram Drought Index) measures soil moistures and large class fuel moistures, such as trees and brush. Low readings, such as 0-200 do not contribute much to fire intensity, but as you see higher readings approaching 600-800, then you are much more likely to see wildfires.”
Graham turned to Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs for the latest KBDI reading and the veteran fire commander replied, “We’re a little over 500.”
As far as conditions conducive to wildfires are concerned, this is as bad as I have seen it up here.
So low humidity days with no precipitation for a lengthy period have turned Western North Carolina into a veritable tinderbox. The mountain region is more susceptible to wildfires because of steep terrain that often serves as an accelerant for flames, as well as more abundant fuel for fires, including dry fallen leaves and what fire officials describe as “slash,” such as the dead fallen limbs littering the High Country landscape after they grown heavy, break and fall during ice storms of recent years.
“As far as conditions conducive to wildfires are concerned,” Graham observed, “this is as bad as I have seen it up here.”
The Horton Fire is just one of 19 known wildfires currently active in Western North Carolina. Closest to this region are the Horton Fire, one in Ashe County between West Jefferson and Fleetwood, and an even larger fire known as “Chestnut Knob,” south of Morganton. The Chestnut Knob fire has consumed almost 6,500 acres and, according to InciWeb, the perimeter is roughly 65% contained by 257 total personnel on the scene.
Given the number of fires in the region and the resources being brought to bear on each one from multiple durisdictions, some even coming from out of state, Blowing Rock News asked incident commander Dellinger during the press conference if the Horton Fire had required the reassignment of resources from any of the other active wildfires in Western NC.
The best help the public can provide is to stay off the road for our safety and your safety. Let us do our jobs.
“Yes,” he replied, “as recently as this afternoon we have received reinforcements from the Chestnut Knob fire, but primarily most of the resources have come locally, out of Western North Carolina.”
“The roughly 100 personnel are broken up into different configurations of crews and engines,” he recounted. “That’s a good number. We may staff that tomorrow, but after that the number could drop down to 40 or 50. We have crews from all over North Carolina, as well as from out of state.
One of the several television station reporters from Winston-Salem and Charlotte asked Dellinger what the public can do to help.
“Well, the donations of water and Gatorade and such are appreciated,” he said before adding, “but the most important thing they can do is stay out of our way and let us do our jobs. Stay off the roads for our safety and your safety.”
Public Information Officer for the Horton Fire is Nathan Hunerwadel, who noted to reporters that there were some residents of the area who are under mandatory evacuation orders by emergency service officials, and he said that emergency shelter arrangements had been made by the American Red Cross at Alliance Bible Fellowship in Boone. Pets, he said, can be taken to the Watauga County Humane Society.
Hunerwadel said to the onlooking media outlets, “We always get a lot of phone calls from people wanting to know whether or not they should evacuate. Our response is always, ‘Use your best judgment. Don’t wait for a phone call. (If you feel at risk) go ahead and evacuate.'”
Dellinger described the emergency teams’ strategy for managing the fire as including “burnouts” and backfires to try and contain the fire inside of a well-defined perimeter, consuming the unburned fuel outside of the main fire.
The fire management team is using bulldozers to create large swaths of open dirt, or “fire breaks” to help stop the spread of the fire. The teams are also stationing fire trucks on site at various homes that might be threatened, as well as dozing fire breaks around those structures to protect them from loss.
“We currently have structural protection resources along Sampson Rd., Watson Rd., and Dugger Firetower Rd. to protect those homes,” Dellinger reported. “We have been prepping those homes all day, buring out around them and creating fire breaks.”
Law enforcement is currently working on an investigation.
Dellinger described the fire as heading in an easterly direction, towards Dugger Firetower Rd. “That’s why it has been a priority to secure the northeast corridor, including Dugger Firetower Rd.”
Pointing at the map on the side of an emergency services truck trailer, Dellinger cautioned, “If we don’t secure this line, then the fire can spread to include several thousand acres.”
Dellinger indicated that he was not aware of the fire being intentionally set, adding, “Law enforcement is currently working on their investigation and that’s all that we can release at this time.”
“We currently have 55 structures immediately threatened,” Dellinger said, “but beyond our footprint there are 200 more that could be threatened.”
He said that the next couple of days looked more favorable for battling the Horton Fire with higher levels of humidity. “We’re looking to make great strides over the next couple of days in containing this fire and keeping it in check.”
A “scout” or reconnaisance plane was used earlier on Tuesday afternoon to monitor the fire from the air, but Dellinger said that it had since been released. “Visibility (because of the smoke) has been a problem. It is not safe for the aircraft to work when they don’t have good visibility.”
“We’ve also had a helicopter on site all day,” noted Dellinger.
Reynolds Parkway and Sampson Rd. have been closed to traffic.
Dellinger said that commanders on the Horton Fire have been applying lessons learned from some of the other wildfires in Western North Carolina that have resulted from similar conditions.
Drawing or defining a perimeter is helpful in managing a wildfire, but not foolproof in containing the fire, especially in the early stages.
“Last night,” Dellinger said, “we had snags (i.e. dead burning trees) that fell across our fire line, across our fire break, and we could not contain that spot, so we had to expand our footprint. That’s when we made the decision to move the fire line to Dugger Firetower Rd.”
Along with a few other media outlets, Blowing Rock News joined an escorted “tour” of the fire lines, led by Captain Kelly Redmon of Watauga County Sheriff’s Office.