Thursday, November 22, 2001

Rain takes care of Ky. wildfires

The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Rain did in one day what 1,500 firefighters had been trying to do for more than three weeks — put out the forest fires that had turned the mountains and valleys of eastern Kentucky into giant ash trays.

        Firefighters, including National Guard troops, began leaving the region Tuesday and Wednesday after a quarter inch of rain dampened the layer of new-fallen leaves in the hardwood forests.

        Most of the firefighters assigned to Kentucky will be able to have Thanksgiving dinner with their families.

        That won't be the case for more than 2,000 others working on fires in other southern states that didn't get rain, said Bernie Freeman, fire intelligence coordinator at the Southern Area Coordination Center in Atlanta.

        Fires were still burning in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia on Wednesday, Mr. Freeman said. Flames from one 3,000-acre fire were creeping close to the Shenandoah National Forest in Virginia. One of the similar proportions was burning between Asheville, N.C., and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he said.

        The fires have been burning about 10,000 acres a day for the past four days. Mr. Freeman said the possibility of rain moving into the region tonight into Friday and Saturday has firefighters hopeful.

        In Kentucky, some firefighters have stayed behind to monitor stubborn fires that survived the rain and continue to smolder behind containment lines. They'll also stand ready to fight any new fires that start.

        For more than three weeks, smoke from the worst outbreak of forest fires in more than a decade has shaded Pikeville and other mountain towns. More than 173,000 acres of forests are charred.

        District Ranger Dexter Conley said some 60 firefighters left behind will have Thanksgiving dinner at the Betsy Layne ranger headquarters in eastern Kentucky.

        “We still have 43 fires that have been declared 100 percent contained, but there's always the possibility of hotspots and the possibility of some line breaks,” said Gwen Holt, spokeswoman for the Division of Forestry. “That's why they're keeping some people there to monitor those for a couple of more days.”

        With additional rain predicted for Friday and Saturday, Ms. Holt said firefighters are hoping their work is nearly complete.

        “The rains came just in time to allow most of our folks to enjoy Thanksgiving at home,” she said.


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