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Thanks to rain, North Georgia fires nearly contained

Rain in North Georgia is helping extinguish two wildfires that have been stubbornly burning there for weeks.

Officials overseeing firefighting efforts said the blazes are almost completely contained as additional rain storms move in this weekend. But they cautioned that flare ups could still pose a danger.

The pair of fires, stretching across North Georgia forest land and into North Carolina, have devoured some 82 square miles of woodland. That’s more than half the size of the city of Atlanta.

They are two of a number of fires that have ravaged the drought-stricken Southeast this fall. Firefighters have poured into the region from western states, where such fires are more common.

The most devastating of the fires came in Tennessee, where a blaze fueled by powerful winds swept into Gatlinburg Monday night leaving 13 dead.

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In Georgia, the wildfires early on left metro Atlanta choked by smoke drifting South.

But recent precipitation- coming after a record dry streak of 42 days - has proven to be a game changer.

Since Tuesday, the area of the Rough Ridge fire, in the Cohutta Wilderness Area, has received about 2 ½ inches of rain and more is expected over the weekend. The fire has been about 95 percent contained.

Larisa Bogardus, spokesperson for the South Central Oregon Fire Management Partnership, said the effort has shifted from battling active blazes to one of “repair and rehabilitation.” That translates to 95 firefighters and support staff this weekend trying to fix any damage done to the landscape when they moved in equipment to combat the flames.

“We’re cleaning up after ourselves, raking debris, we’re grading, fixing roads that may have been rutted by our equipment, so when visitors go back in, they don’t see the scars,” Bogardus said.

Crews are also sowing winter wheat and clover seeds on the bare earth to help stabilize the soil when the plants begin to sprout in spring.

Firefighters haven’t seen flare ups since it rained, but that doesn’t mean the danger has passed. The leaf cover on the ground forms a thick mat that slows water absorption to the dry ground below. It can take at least a couple of days for the water to penetrate those lower levels of leaf cover. Smoldering embers could lie beneath. The rains this weekend should go a way to tamping those down if or where they exist. Consistent moisture is key, said Bogardus.

It took six months to get this dry and it’ll take quite a bit of months for it to get back to normal moisture levels,” Bogardus said.

Similar work is being done at Rock Mountain, in the Cahttahoochee-Oconee National Wilderness Area near Clayton, which is in the suppression and repair stage of the fight. No seeding has started, but crews are repairing swaths of bulldozed earth.

As of Friday, 534 people were working on the blaze that is now 91 percent contained up from 63 percent just a few days earlier. Since Monday, the area has been drenched with 3 to 4 inches of rain, though there is still smoldering along the northernmost edge of the fire perimeter, said Michelle Burnett, spokesperson for Rock Mountain Fire.

Burnett said that even with the coming rains this weekend, the ground is still a long way from being saturated enough.

The overall drought is still pretty significant,” Burnett said.

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