Firefighter Cody Henderson, New Mexico, works on structure protection putting out hot spot above a home on the Tallulah River Road near the Georgia and North Carolina border while fighting the Rock Mountain Fire on Nov. 21, 2016, in Clayton. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

North Georgia fires largely contained, Southern hospitality is praised

Tom Stokesberry is getting ready to go back to California, and his firefighting brethren with the U.S. Forest Service are slated to return to their homes across the Southeast, as wet weather has succeeded in containing North Georgia fires that have been burning for weeks.

But before he goes, Stokesberry wanted to let residents know that their donations, and their gratitude, have been noticed by the service.

“Southern hospitality is really fantastic,” said Stokesberry, a spokesperson for the Forest Service. “The amount of giving, the caring, the local thank yous, people buying you a soda in the stores… when you work 16 hours a day, it puts a smile on your face.”

All told, more than 600 firefighters from 25 states have battled the Rock Mountain Fire, in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Wilderness Area near Clayton. Sunday morning, it was 93 percent contained. The Rough Ridge fire, in the Cohutta Wilderness Area, was 95 percent contained earlier in the weekend. Together, they burned more than 82 square miles —more than half the size of the city of Atlanta.

Stokesberry expects the Rock Mountain fire to be totally contained Dec. 15. But the rain has helped eliminate hot spots, he said. The Forest Service has downgraded the fire, and expects to send most firefighters home early this week.

A leadership team of more than 50 people, from the Pacific Northwest, already returned home after three weeks of work. The fire has been burning since Nov. 9 and remains under investigation. As of Sunday, more then 200 people were still working to suppress the flames.

“With the rains and good work, everybody’s done,” Stokesberry said. Referring to local Forest Service workers, he said, “We’re going to give the fire back to the forest, and the forest’s going to be able to handle it.”

Now, he said, workers will begin to fill in the lines that were cut to help contain the spread of the fire. That process could take a month or more, he said.

“We’re trying to make it look like we weren’t there,” Stokesberry said.

Some roads that have been closed — Coleman River Road, Patterson Gap Road and Abe Gap Road — were scheduled to reopen late Sunday. And while some resources will stay in place to help create a perimeter to fully contain the fire, the situation has been downgraded as the size of the fire has been reduced.

“We’re on the downward swing of this fire,” Stokesberry said.

Some forest areas are still closed. They are:

• Nantahala Wilderness area east of the Appalachian Trail, including the blackened fire footprint of the Rock Mountain fire in both Georgia and North Carolina

• Appalachian Trail from Dicks Creek Gap/U.S. 76 in Georgia to Mooney Gap in North Carolina.

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