A wildfire burns in Gordon County. (Credit: Georgia Forestry Commission)

Winds add to threat from Georgia wildfires

A dangerous, dry and windy Saturday sparked a dramatic increase in small wildfires across Georgia. Meanwhile, firefighters from across the nation working in North Georgia continued to hold the line on major blazes there, in the face of high winds blowing smoldering fall leaves in record dry conditions.

State crews got 73 calls Saturday by 5 p.m. to fight new fires, said Wendy Burnett, spokeswoman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. “That’s a lot of fires,” said Burnett, “and we’re not done yet.”

Also, that’s not a North Georgia figure, it’s for fires scattered throughout the state, she said. “We have been seeing an uptick in activity throughout the state, but not this much.”

The fires were small, some less than an acre, and about half were extinguished quickly. However, it’s a possible signal of danger.

In North Georgia, where larger, more established fires have drawn hundreds if not thousands of firefighters, crews were concerned that the stepped-up winds would blow fuel across the fire lines they’ve worked hard to clear. By midday, that hadn’t happened at two of the biggest fires, Rock Mountain in Rabun County and Rough Ridge in Fannin County.

“So far the critical lines that we’re concerned about in terms of it moving to the east down into the Betty’s Creek area, they’re holding,” said Stan Hinatsu, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service who traveled from the Pacific Northwest to help at the Rock Mountain fire. The fire now covers 10,425 acres.

“We did have a small slop over the Appalachian Trail. While we’re concerned about it, that’s not the piece that would make a run, if you will.”

The Rock Mountain fire remained 30 percent contained as of Saturday morning.

At Rough Ridge, hundreds of firefighters from as far as California and New York were working to keep the blaze in check. A U.S. Forest Service spokesman at the Rough Ridge fire said it was 45 percent contained Saturday, an improvement over 40 percent the day before. More than 200 workers were staffing the fire, which covered 27,870 acres.

Although the acreage appears to be an increase, it’s probably not, due to an improvement in the mapping of the fire, said spokesman Brian Grant.

“The winds are definitely going to test the fireline,” Grant said, noting winds of 30-35 mph on the ridge top. “There are so many leaves and it’s so dry. What happens is those leaves blow down into the ashes, then they smolder and blow out of the fire, and blow across and start a new little fire. That’s been a big challenge to the firefighters.”

However, he said, crews had been working the fire lines non-stop and were still strengthening them. “We’ve got some good strong lines out there,” Grant said.

But there’s a red-flag warning Saturday for a reason, he said. “I think you have to go out there and touch the ground to see,” he said. “It’s just incredibly dry.”

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