Inmates, other agencies drafted to fight Georgia wildfires

More crews have been drafted to fight wildfires that have torched thousands of acres in the North Georgia mountains, officials said Wednesday.

But not everyone is a firefighter.

The Georgia Department of Corrections has deployed inmates across the state to get the fires under control.

“They go through a tremendous screening process,” Charles Price with Georgia Department of Corrections Fire Services told WTVC-TV in Chattanooga, Tenn. “They’re non-violent offenders. Most of them, it’s their first time being incarcerated, and it’s actually a volunteer program. Once they get into it, they go through the exact same training as anyone in the street would.”

Authorities have taken roughly 225 calls about wildfires since Friday, Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. About 13 of those fires are still active.

The largest active fire, in Rough Ridge, burned about 23,759 acres in the Cohutta Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Fannin County, said Susie Heisey, a spokeswoman with the Southern Area Gold Team, a group helping the U.S. Forest Service get the fire under control. More than 200 people were working to contain the blaze.

“We’re anticipating to see increased containment over the next few days,” she said.

A smaller active fire, at Rock Mountain in Rabun County, affected 6,487 acres and was still spreading, the Forestry Commission said. About 160 people were involved in efforts to fight that fire Tuesday. That number grew Wednesday to more than 200, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Tom Stokesberry said.

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.

The fire in Rough Ridge, which led to a total fire ban in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, was increasing by 200 acres Wednesday, down from the normal increase of a few thousand acres a day, Heisey said. The blaze was about 30 percent contained. The Rock Mountain blaze, about 10 miles north of Clayton in northeast Georgia, was 10 percent contained.

Gov. Nathan Deal banned the use of fireworks for most of Georgia in an executive order on Monday, and he expanded a drought declaration to 110 counties.

Crews are working to decrease intensity of the fires by lighting their own smaller blazes near the perimeters of containment areas.

Heisey said the smaller fires burn fuel before the larger blazes can get to it, and this helps prevent the fires from spreading beyond the containment perimeters. She said flames could still spark in pockets inside the perimeters when leaves fall.

“But it looks like things are in pretty good shape with the Rough Ridge fire,” Heisey said.

The fires have exhausted resources and required outside assistance from other agencies. At least 27 of the 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.

Cherokee and Forsyth county officials said their firefighters recently relieved Dade County crews, too.

Cherokee has gotten about 30 wildfire calls of its own since Nov. 3, fire spokesman Tim Cavender said. Officials have asked residents to restrict outdoor burning until the county gets some rain.

For the first time in more than 50 years, metro Atlanta has seen 30 consecutive days without rain.

That has happened only three other times: 1904, 1952 and 1961, Channel 2 meteorologist Karen Minton said.

“And we’re going to continue to add to that count,” Minton said.

Forsyth fire spokesman Jason Shivers said his county hadn’t received reports of wildfires but is under a burn ban that restricts recreational burns.

Even with the requested restrictions, smoke from blazes in the North Georgia mountains still caused air quality issues in metro Atlanta and prompted many schools to keep students indoors as a result.

Fannin County schools canceled outdoor recess, and Cherokee County schools were also told to move outdoor activities inside, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Gwinnett County schools are having principals use their best judgment about when to keep students inside.

Jackson County schools canceled some outdoor activities, Channel 2 reported. Hall County limited outdoor activities to mornings only. And Cobb County schools also planned adjustments, district spokeswoman Donna Lowry said.

“School principals have been asked to continue to monitor the situation at the local level and adjust any outdoor activities based on conditions at their schools and to use extra caution with students who have asthma or other respiratory problems,” Lowry said.

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