Fires Scorch the Parched Eastern U.S.

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 14, 2001 (ENS) - Severe drought conditions, along with dry leaves that have fallen from trees, have contributed to increased wildland fire activity across the eastern U.S. The Appalachian mountain region is now experiencing its worst wildfire season in a decade, with thick smoke blanketing hundreds of miles in Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

fire

Wildfires, many of the set by arsonists, are burning thousands of acres in the Appalachia region (Photo courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
According to a fire meteorologist from the National Weather Service, southeast and eastern states have experienced extremely low humidity and drought conditions for several weeks now. No significant rainfall is expected for at least ten days.

More than 100 federal wildland fire crews, mostly from western states, have been sent to the area to help suppress the fires - many started intentionally.

Some area schools have been forced to close, emergency rooms have been flooded with people experiencing trouble breathing, and vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly, are being warned to stay indoors.

Many mountain roads in southern Appalachia are covered with smoke so thick that cars must drive with their headlights on, in broad daylight. On Monday, a crash near Pikeville, Kentucky that was attributed to the poor visibility killed one person.

More than 150,000 acres of woods have been scorched in southern Kentucky so far this year - some 96,600 acres burning in the past two weeks alone. In Tennessee, about 25,000 acres have burned since the beginning of November.

Last week, 67,370 acres burned in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

helicopter

On Monday, a two man helicopter being used to dump water on a Kentucky fire crashed, injuring the pilot (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)
On Saturday, a firefighter was killed in Tennessee after fire overran the region where he was cutting a fire line. On Monday, a Forest Service helicopter dropping water on a fire in eastern Kentucky crashed, sending its pilot to the hospital.

More than a dozen people have been arrested in Kentucky and Tennessee for setting some of the blazes.

The largest fire in Kentucky, the massive Kentucky River Complex, has scorched 34,166 acres in nine counties surrounding Hazard, Kentucky.

Federal assistance has been authorized for an uncontrolled South Carolina blaze that is threatening residential areas in Horry County. The fire, which started last Wednesday, had burned 1,500 acres when the state asked for federal help this weekend.

So far this year, more than 3.5 million acres have burned in fires across the nation.

map

This drought map released November 8 shows much of the eastern U.S. experiencing drought conditions ranging from abnormally dry (yellow) to severe drought (brown) (Photo courtesy U.S. Drought Monitor)
October 2001 set drought records in several states. It was the third driest October ever for Connecticut and New Jersey; the fourth driest for Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware and Virginia; and the fifth driest for Maryland, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

The severe drought conditions have parched eastern North Carolina and central Georgia, parts of western Virginia and west central Georgia. Streamflows are very low, and water restrictions are being enforced across many parts of Georgia.

Reservoirs in the Delaware River Basin which serve New York City are now under a drought warning, holding only 33 percent of their full capacity. The drought is drying up wells and crops in rural areas, and many states have banned all outdoor burning for the foreseeable future.

Little or no rain is forecast for the entire eastern U.S. for at least the next few days.