Firefighters Valarie Lopez (left) and Mark Tabaez work to cool hot spots on a hillside in Clayton. (Credit: Associated Press)

Firefighters brace for strong winds as blazes expected to burn through Thanksgiving

Strong winds forecast for Saturday could spell more trouble for firefighters battling growing fires that torched more than 3,600 acres in the North Georgia mountains since Thursday.

The smoke that has covered parts of the metro area for almost two weeks drifted away Friday, but expect winds reaching 30 mph to shift wildfire smoke back to the region Saturday. 

"We’ve taken precautionary steps to accommodate for the weather forecast," Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett said. "(We're) asking our personnel across the state to ensure that all of our county offices are either staffed through the weekend, or that personnel have their fire equipment with them so that they can respond to wildfires faster."

Burnett said fire personnel were also asked to send more than one suppression unit to reported fires. 

"These are statewide actions – we anticipate fire activity to increase on a broad scale over the next few days," Burnett said. "Hopefully we are being overly cautious – that would be the best scenario."

Gusts could get up to 35 mph, which may prompt a wind advisory Saturday, Channel 2 Action News meteorologists said. There is also a 10 percent chance of rain.

Residents are under a pre-evacuation order as firefighters work to keep the fire away from their homes by helicopters dropping water on the approaching Rock Mountain Fire on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, in Tate City.

The wildfires are expected to continue to burn days after Thanksgiving. And strong winds and tough terrain will only make firefighters' jobs more difficult.

Firefighting crews added hundreds of people to their teams from across the country and prepared for the long haul Friday.

The largest active fire, in Rough Ridge, was 40 percent contained Friday, and it 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.

The Rough Ridge fire has burned about 27,000 acres in the Cohutta Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Fannin County, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Brian Grant said.

More than 240 people were working to contain the blaze Friday, up from about 190 people. They used two helicopters, four water tankers, seven engines and two bulldozers.

Channel 2's Wendy Corona saw the impact first-hand in Hall County.

The most difficult part about fighting the fire remains the rough and varied terrain.

Grant said his team transitioned to a new incident management team and has begun plans to extend hours through the holiday.

“It will be operations as normal on Thanksgiving,” he said.

RELATED: More photos from North Georgia

The smaller Rock Mountain blaze, spanning more than 9,300 acres about 10 miles north of Clayton in northeast Georgia, was 30 percent contained Friday and isn’t expected to be fully contained until Dec. 15, the NICC reported.

Rita Baysinger, who came from Colorado to help the U.S. Forest Service as a spokeswoman, said people on her team increased from 236 Thursday to 559 Friday. They came from 24 states.

Baysinger 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.

“The fire doesn’t take time off,” Baysinger said, adding that neither will crews.

They will instead continue a rotation that cycles firefighters in and out to avoid exhaustion.

The Rough Ridge and Rock Mountain fires are smaller than the largest the state has seen. That designation belongs to a fire that burned more than 115,300 acres in Ware County in 2007.

RELATED: What’s been happening since it last rained in metro Atlanta?

In another active fire, a Department of Natural Resources technician helping battle flames was thrown from a utility terrain vehicle near Johnson Mountain in Bartow County on Thursday. The woman, whose name was not released, has several minor spine fractures but “every indication is that she will be fine,” DNR spokeswoman Robin Hill said.

Meteorologist Katie Walls reports.

The injury highlights the difficulties crews face while battling a rash of wildfires that have broken out over the past couple of weeks due to drought conditions and no rain for more than a month.

Authorities had taken 39 calls about wildfires since Thursday, Burnett said. About 12 of those were still active Friday.

RELATED: How to care for your lawn during a drought

“If we feel that we get stretched too thin, we can call on other state forestry agencies to send people and/or equipment,” Burnett said.

The DNR, Department of Corrections, Georgia State Patrol and local fire and law enforcement departments have assisted with the fires.

“With the support of our partners … we are OK,” Burnett said.

The latest imagery from NASA shows where wildfires are burning across the Southeast. (Credit: NASA)

The fires have exhausted resources and required assistance from other agencies. At least 27 inmates from five different prisons were deployed to the Lookout Highlands subdivision in Dade County to help clear combustible materials around evacuated homes, according to WTVC-TV in Chattanooga, Tenn.

RELATED: Gwinnett parks ban smoking, fires, grilling

Cherokee and Forsyth county officials said their firefighters recently relieved Dade County crews, too. Towns County officials called the Smyrna Fire Department for help battling Hiawassee area flames. The crews will be on 24-hours shifts for at least four days and firefighters and engines will be rotated for relief.

Dry conditions from the drought were obvious Thursday near the boat ramp at Mary Alice Park at Lake Lanier. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

For the first time in more than 50 years, metro Atlanta went 30 consecutive days without rain this week. That has happened only three other times: 1904, 1952 and 1961, Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Karen Minton said. Friday was the 33rd day without measurable rainfall, the television station reported.

Metro Atlanta has avoided the worst of the wildfires, but the most frequent impact has been smoke in the air and poor air quality.

RELATED: Smoke-free conditions return


As you might imagine, the recent fires have also led to increased spending in Georgia.

The cost to fight them has increased more than seven times in one year as Georgia experiences historically dry conditions. Since July, the state spent $2.6 million on fighting fires, up from $354,000 during the same period last year, Burnett said.

“Keep in mind that last year we had gotten a lot of rain, so our spending was low,” Burnett said. “So basically we’ve gone from one extreme to the other.”

Last year, Georgia had 570 wildfires, which was the lowest number in 60 years, Burnett said.

There have been more than 2,400 this year.

RELATED: See which Atlanta neighborhoods have been affected most by the wildfire smoke

Restrictions banning open air fires, smoking, fire pits, grills and rings kicked in Thursday along the Appalachian National Scene Trail. The trail begins in Springer Mountain in Fannin County and stretches 78.6 miles through North Georgia.

RELATED: Fireworks ban issued

Dry conditions prompted the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to announce the restrictions Wednesday. They extend to parts of the trail in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Those states have experienced dry conditions, wildfires and burn bans, too.

“These restrictions will better provide for public safety,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy spokesman Jordan Bowman said in a news release. “The southern half of the A.T. and surrounding lands are significantly dry and the potential for wildland fires is high.”

The restrictions will remain until significant rain or snow cover the area, Bowman said.

RELATED: Map: Georgia’s drought and where water restrictions apply

Cobb County officials sent a reminder Thursday that a temporary ban on all outdoor burning has been in effect since Oct. 28.

“The ban is expected to be lifted when significant rainfall is received and notification will be sent out when burning may resume,” Cobb fire spokeswoman Denell Boyd said.

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