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Southern States Scrambling To Contain Wildfires


Dozens of large wildfires are burning across the Southeast consuming large areas of mountain forest in North Carolina and Georgia. Thousands of firefighters are scrambling to contain blazes that have consumed more than 80,000 acres across the South. From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Sam Whitehead reports.

SAM WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: This time of year, the steep, forested hill behind Delores Duncan's mobile home in Fairmount, Ga., burns bright with autumn colour. But this week, those woods are actually burning.

DELORES DUNCAN: It was bad last night when it was flaming up real high. First, it was coming down the mountain over there. And you could see it coming down the mountain, so we went down to see how bad it was. And then I guess it was about 50 feet from the bottom when we went down, and that was before dark.

WHITEHEAD: As night fell, the fire moved up the hill threatening Duncan's home. That's when rangers from the Georgia Forestry Commission arrived on the scene. They stopped the flames about 100 feet from Duncan's back door. And the next day, their work continued.

On that hill behind Duncan's home, one ranger points a hose at smoldering spots in the ground. Another ranger, Eric Evans, wields a rake.

ERIC EVANS: The duff layer out here, the actual leaves and the pine straw, are so thick that it's not just burning on the surface, it's actually burning underneath. So we're having to remove some of that fuel to get to the real heat, which is under the ground. And we use different hand tools, try to put some water on it and just at least cool it off so it won't restart.

WHITEHEAD: This is Evans' second deployment. He spent two weeks fighting fires in north Georgia last month, and he'll be on call through next month.

BYRON HAIRE: You know, we've got a lot of folks up here who's going to miss Thanksgiving at home, but it's part of the life.

WHITEHEAD: Byron Haire works for the Georgia Forestry Commission. He says, lately, each new day brings new fires.

HAIRE: Some of them are small - doesn't take a lot to extinguish. Those like this one though do take several days if it stays where it's at.

WHITEHEAD: Georgia's governor has ordered watering restrictions because of the lack of rain and the months-long drought. The same problem has hit Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas. The drought has dried out forests. Falling leaves continue to cover the ground. Haire says factor in fall breezes, remote mountainous terrain...

HAIRE: There are just several items that have came together to make it a little more difficult than normal.

WHITEHEAD: One of the bigger fires is burning on Lookout Mountain.

Crews are using helicopters with orange buckets to dump water onto the smoking trees. On a high cliff above, a team works to control an intentional fire set to keep the bigger fire out of a residential neighborhood. Trina Morris is a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Normally, she studies bats. These aren't normal times.

TRINA MORRIS: I've been in Georgia 11.5 years. I've never seen anything close to this. And we just haven't had any rain in this part of the state, and that leads to really, really dry conditions. And it's the perfect storm for fire.

WHITEHEAD: And that perfect storm is expected to continue. Forecasters predict a warm, dry winter across much of Georgia and the Southeast. For NPR News, I'm Sam Whitehead in northwest Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Whitehead is a reporter with GPB News.He has worked with “Here and Now,”NPR News, “State of the Re:Union,”WSKG News, andWRVO News. He also co-foundedWRFI Community Radio Newsin Ithaca, New York.He hasn’t won any awards yet.In his free time, he tries to become a better storyteller. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.