As evacuations were being planned for 142 Rabun County homes at risk from wildfires, brush fires reached Cherokee and DeKalb counties Tuesday afternoon, fire officials said.
Cherokee fire spokesman Tim Cavender said local crews were called off Tuesday afternoon after extinguishing fires along I-575 near Airport Road. About the same time, a fire reported in Dunwoody burned half an acre between Verdon Drive and Aurora Court.
Meanwhile, one of the largest wildfires in North Georgia, the Rock Mountain fire, continues to spread. Crews plan to push back the fire’s perimeter, requiring people to leave their homes in Rabun County.
Officials have not announced when the evacuations will go into effect, but the first step is clearing a residential area near Rock Mountain from debris so workers can manage the fire’s spread.
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“We’re looking at a wider containment line,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Debbie Carlisi said.
The Rock Mountain blaze spanned 14,757 acres Tuesday. It is located about 10 miles north of Clayton in northeast Georgia.
The fire could more than double in size to 30,000 acres, federal officials confirmed at a packed public briefing Monday night. It was 30 percent contained Tuesday and isn’t expected to be fully contained until Dec. 15, officials said.
Crews are working to decrease the intensity of the fire by lighting their own smaller blazes near Bettys Creek Road. Burning smaller fires before the larger blaze can arrive helps prevent it from spreading beyond the containment perimeters, Carlisi said.
Crews are also working to sweep up leaves, which can act as matches that reignite flames on the fire’s east side.
The crews included 458 people Tuesday, a slight increase from the roughly 434 people working Monday. They are using five helicopters, four water tankers, three bulldozers and 23 fire engines in their efforts to keep the fire contained.
“We just have to see how far they get,” Carlisi said.
The Rock Mountain fire is hardly the largest blaze the state has seen. That designation belongs to a fire that burned more than 115,300 acres in Ware County in 2007.
The Rabun County blaze, however, is one of Georgia’s largest active fires, falling second in a list of more than 4,370 that sparked this year, according to a Georgia Forestry Commission report released Tuesday.
But firefighting efforts are not without some triumphs.
Evacuation orders were lifted Monday for 46 homes as flames flared in Polk and Haralson counties, the Georgia Forestry report said. The blaze that had burned more than 1,550 acres was 90 percent contained Monday night.
Crews were also able to keep the largest fire in the state from spreading.
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The Rough Ridge fire spanned about 27,870 acres in the Cohutta Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Fannin County on Monday and Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service reported.
That fire was 59 percent contained, up from 55 percent.
“At this point it looks like there has been no spread,” fire spokesman Frank Sanguinedo said.
He is part of an incident management team called in from southern California to help manage the Rough Ridge fire.
The blaze probably won’t be completely contained until Nov. 30, according to a report from the National Interagency Coordination Center, which helps coordinate efforts between multiple agencies.
Firefighting crews in North Georgia added hundreds of people from across the country last week. Rita Baysinger, who came from Colorado to help the U.S. Forest Service as a spokeswoman, said finding crews to help fight fires has taken time because the fire season doesn’t end until October for western states.
She also said firefighting efforts won’t diminish for the holidays, instead continuing a rotation that cycles firefighters in and out to avoid exhaustion.
But the ongoing fires have exhausted resources and required assistance from agencies including the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Corrections, Georgia State Patrol and local fire and law enforcement departments.
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Authorities took about 69 calls about wildfires Monday, Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett said. Thirteen were still active Tuesday.
Following drought-related disaster declarations in 22 Georgia counties, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced loans are available to businesses taking a substantial financial hit due to the drought. Those businesses can start applying Tuesday.
Local officials have said the effects of the drought are wide-reaching, and the risk of wildfires is among the most severe.
A hay bale fire that sparked just south of Griffin on Monday and spread to more than 50 acres happened in a county, Spalding, that hasn’t gotten rain in nearly two months.
Douglas County, in the worst category of drought dubbed “exceptional,” reported 27 calls about grass, wood and illegal burning fires from Friday to Sunday. That’s not including a brush fire that torched just more than an acre and burned for more than three hours Monday.
It 's so dry that tossing a cigarette bud out of a car window while driving can spark flames that stretch across acres, Douglas County fire spokesman Wes Tallon said. The county stopped granting permits Friday that allow people to burn outdoors.
Similar restrictions banning open air fires, smoking, fire pits, grills and rings kicked in last week along the Appalachian National Scene Trail. The trail begins in Springer Mountain in Fannin County and stretches 78.6 miles through North Georgia.
And in metro Atlanta, as with counties throughout Georgia, stiff new watering restrictions took effect last week.
Metro areas have avoided the worst of the wildfires and more frequently dealt with smoke from the North Georgia fires and poor air quality.
Tuesday is poised to be the 37th day without measurable rainfall in Atlanta, the National Weather Service reported.
The city edges closer to tying record dryness set at 39 days in 1884.
WEATHER: Next chance of rain is Wednesday
The only indication Atlanta might not meet the record is a 20 percent chance of rain that could bring a few sprinkles Wednesday night.
“But the air is so dry, it could just dry all up before it even makes it to our surface,” Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Karen Minton said Tuesday.
Any rain that metro areas get will clear up by Thursday morning.
“It’s just not a lot of moisture available, so please don’t count on this to come in and give you relief,” Minton said. “It’s just not going to do that.”
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