GREENE COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Low humidity, drought conditions, and high winds create the right mix for fire danger.
Greene County is working to alert the community about these fire dangers and why it’s important not to burn during these weather conditions.
“The fire dangers have been moderate to high to very high,” said Heather Sipe, director of the Greene County Emergency Management Agency. “Our volunteer fire departments and city fire departments are responding to fires daily and multiple fires daily.”
Sipe said with these weather conditions, people don’t realize how easily fires can spread.
“It’s people burning things they shouldn’t be burning and it’s spreading very quickly,” Sipe said. “A simple ember gets away from you and it’s burning five or six acres at a time.”
Greene County is under a burn restriction until Nov. 24, and at that time officials will re-evaluate the weather conditions to determine if the restriction can be lifted.
“We know accidents happen, but we also know there’s a lot of negligence out there,” Sipe said. “We just want to push information out for situational awareness, think before you do something.”
Cherokee National Forest ranger Leslie Morgan said the Black Bear Fire located off Interstate 40 on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line started from a tractor-trailer accident.
“When that wreck happened, something sparked and it ran up the mountain in a really fast head fire,” Morgan said. “It burned 300 acres in a matter of a few hours.”
Morgan added that fire crews can not always rely on aircraft to put out the fire because of terrain, and when that happens, crews have to find other ways to contain the burn.
“Sometimes you just have to back off and go what we call indirect with the fire and use natural barriers, like roads, and trails and maybe rock cliffs or something,” Morgan said. “And then once you get those lines secure you literally fight fire with fire.”
Sipe said that any residents in the area should not burn anything until burn restrictions have been cleared. This also includes fire pits, covered or uncovered.
The National Weather Service has also issued a Red Flag Warning for our region as well. A Red Flag Warning can be issued when dry conditions and strong winds combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.
Christopher Joyner, Public Affairs Officer for the Cherokee National Forest, said this phenomenon is called a “mountain wave event.”
Joyner said it comes at a time where it’s critical not to burn.
“We’re behind on the amount of rain that we would normally get this time of year,” Joyner said. “And and so our fuels are very dry. And if we have any fire that starts today, it’s going to be very resistant to control because of the wind.”
A burn ban was issued in the Town of Erwin on Monday.
Jimmy Erwin, Unicoi County EMA Director, said fire crews have already seen spot fires and are preparing for high winds.
Erwin said they’ve already responded to trees falling because of high winds.
“We just hope we don’t have no trees fall across power lines that’s going to cause a fire, but we will be alert and be on call in case that happens,” Erwin said.
Joyner said wildland firefighters are already on standby and that the dry conditions are very close to what caused the Gatlinburg Wildfires in 2016.
“We’re very close to those same type of conditions,” Joyner said. “This wind event that is just now starting and is expected to run through the night has that same level of threat. We need the public to do their part and not do things that contribute to a wildfire, because anything that starts right now with the level of wind that we have been forecasting, those fires are going to be very resistant to control and containment, and they will spread very rapidly. And any rain we may get is not going to be enough to be able to get us in front of those fires before they establish themselves.”
Erwin agrees and said similar conditions led to a wildfire in Unicoi County in 2016 as well.
“One in Unicoi County that burnt 40 or 50 acres, and it’s very considerable, the same kind of conditions,” Erwin said. “It’s very, very dry. And the more the wind blows these leaves, the drier they will become quicker in the morning time after the dew’s gone off of them. Within an hour, the leaves are back as dry as they were the day before.”
Erwin said burn permits have not been given out these past few days and warns people of liability.
“If someone does set something on fire and it does catch their house on fire or catches a neighbor’s house on fire or catches the woods on fire, they are liable for those damages,” Erwin said. “They can be held criminally and civilly liable for the damages that they make happen by lighting a fire outside.”