Tuesday, November 07, 2000

Light rain fails to halt Ky. forest fires

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE, Ky. — A line of rain showers weakened and broke apart Monday night before it could substantially help firefighters battling more than 30 forest fires in eastern Kentucky, a state forestry official said.

        “They haven't gotten what they needed,” said Tim Sheehan, a spokesman for the state Division of Forestry in Frankfort. “They got about a trace to a tenth of an inch, and that's just not enough.”

        Mr. Sheehan said 31 fires were burning about 14,025 acres at dusk Monday. The blazes were burning in Bell, Breathitt, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Leslie, Owsley and Pike counties.

        Dry leaves and undergrowth from an unusually dry autumn have become the tinder for a string of human-caused fires in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

        More than 3,500 firefighters from across the nation were working the fire lines, clearing away brush, setting backfires and making round-the-clock water drops in helicopters.

        Mr. Sheehan said firefighters were going to work through the night in eastern Kentucky. He said that although the light rain did not help, conditions have turned favorable for putting out the blazes.

        “We've had an increase in humidity and little wind, and those conditions are right to aggressively attack these fires,” Mr. Sheehan said. “But we'd always like for Mother Nature to help us out as much as possible. It would save everybody a lot of work and the taxpayers a lot of money.”

        The biggest problem in the remote areas of the fire has not been property damage, but smoke, which has drifted as far north as Cincinnati and affected the air quality in North Carolina's Piedmont region.

        In eastern Kentucky, Pike County Central High School canceled classes Monday after students complained of burning eyes, hacking coughs and headaches.

        “It was so bad, it had actually gotten inside the school,” said public information officer Rosalind Stanley. “We had to let the students go home.”

        A second front was due to reach eastern Kentucky by late Wednesday or Thursday.

        “The first batch will help things, but I don't think it's going to be enough to put the fires out,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Chuck Greif. “I think we'll have to wait for the second batch to knock them out.”

        Mr. Sheehan said Kentucky officials are watching the second front closely.

        “We're really hoping that produces a lot more moisture than this one (Monday night),” he said.

        West Virginia officials were ready to activate the National Guard to help fight 7,500 acres of wildfires if the expected rain doesn't materialize. They started moving equipment to three armories just in case.

        In Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, two large fires have merged into one blaze that has burned across 15,750 acres. High winds were hampering efforts to contain one flank of the blaze.

        Firefighters in North Carolina's Linville Gorge federal wilderness area were working to firm up containment lines around two fires that have burned more than 5,500 acres.

        Rain fell in the Linville Gorge area on Saturday for the first time in 39 days, but it amounted to only a tenth of an inch, hardly enough to give firefighters a break.

        “We need to get our people some 'R' and 'R' so they can be prepared to go back out if they need to,” said North Carolina forestry division spokeswoman Robin Carter. “Just pray we get rain.”


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- Light rain fails to halt Ky. forest fires