NOVEMBER 11, 2016 — A thin line of smoke is visible just above the Cohutta Mountains in North Georgia, as seen from the Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge. (Alexis Stevens/astevens@ajc.com)
Photo: Alexis Stevens
Photo: Alexis Stevens

No end in sight for N. Georgia wildfires as smoke blankets skies

The Cohutta Wilderness Area of the Chattahoochee National Forest hasn’t had fires like this in at least 30 years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It’s just one of the blazes across the Southeast, where severe drought conditions have kept firefighters busy. And though crews from around the country are helping to contain the fires, there’s no end in sight until Mother Nature lends a hand.

“This is a fire that will persist until there’s a rain event,” Susie Heisey with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said Friday afternoon. “That’s a very large fire for this part of the state.”

Heisey works at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. But she’s currently part of a team of 227 people working to contain the Cohutta Wilderness Fire, which was first reported on Oct. 16. At the command center in Blue Ridge, about 10 miles away from the fire, there was only a hint of smoke in the air Friday afternoon.

But that’s only because the winds pushed the smoke south. In Ellijay, smoke made visibility difficult, blanketing the area in a gray haze.

More than 80 major wildfires are burning across the Southeast, including 18 in the North Carolina mountains that are forcing people from their homes, filling the air with smoke and ash, and lighting up the nights with what one resident calls a volcanic glow, the Charlotte Observer reported Friday.

Fire has scorched more than 20,000 acres in the western part of North Carolina since Oct. 23, the flames fed by trees, leaves and understory — or ground areas — that are dry as kindling because of severe drought. Fire officials are stretched thin by what they say is a historic outbreak, and they are investigating some of the fires as possible arson, the Observer reported.

The Georgia fires, combined with those in North Carolina, have sent smoke in the air for miles, creating several hazy days in metro Atlanta. The Saturday forecast includes winds from the east, meaning those west of Fannin County will likely have smokey skies, Heisey said.

With careful planning, experts believe the Cohutta fire can be contained, Mike Drayton with Ocala National Forest Fire Management said Friday. In his planning operations role, Drayton said crews try to stay 12 to 24 hours ahead of the fire. At night, infrared lights help firefighters predict how the blaze will travel, Drayton said.

“We’re hoping most of it will be in a controlled status. That’s our goal,” Drayton said.

Part of controlling the fire involves helping it spread to nearby water — including the Conasauga and Jacks rivers — by using, surprisingly, more fire. “Strategic firing” doesn’t make sense to those outside of firefighting. But with a wilderness fire, it’s key, Heisey said.

“That’s where we use fire to fight fire,” she explained.

No one has been evacuated because the fire spans a largely remote area that is difficult to access. Much of the area is now blocked off as crews battle the fire, mostly in the understory. Jones Settlement, a private land area with about 20 homes, is the closest residential site to the wildfires, Heisey said. The community of mostly mountain cabins should be out of danger, she said.

Crews are hopeful that the winds will weaken over the weekend, making fire containment an easier task. But it’s still anyone’s guess when the desperately-needed rain will come, Drayton said.

“If we can hold it through the weekend, we’ll be looking really good,” he said.

The Tourists Keep Coming

Blue Ridge, with its scenic views and quaint feel, is a popular destination for weekend travelers, including those making the short trip from the Atlanta area and those traveling from around the country. With various cabins and hotels, the area is a tourist destination for those wanting to view the mountain backdrop covered in fall colors.

And then, there are the apples.

The smoke in the area hasn’t affected the crowds at Mercier Orchards, known for its fruit and delectable sweet treats, a spokeswoman said late Friday afternoon. This weekend should bring crowds to the orchards, Carole Burkett said, following a busy October. The orchards, which line both sides of Blue Ridge Drive, are also unaffected by the smoke, Burkett said.

“We’ve been concerned about the ground being dry,” Burkett said. “But we do have sprinkler systems.”

‘It’s a Natural Occurring Event’

Burkett knows people who live close to the fire near the Cohutta Mountains, where she grew up. Residents are on alert, and burning bans are in place to prevent any additional fires, Burkett said. So far, everyone is safe. Visitors filed in to shop Friday afternoon at the Orchards, many stopping to take family pictures by a pond as the sun began to set.

The lingering wildfires wouldn’t deter the Milton and Criswell families from Birmingham, Ala. The longtime friends rented a cabin for the weekend in Murphy, N.C. But first, the group of eight stopped for apple butter and candy apples.

Back home, there have also been fires because of dry conditions, Lorrie Beth Milton said. But the fires in Georgia and North Carolina weren’t enough to prompt a change in plans, she said.

Though the fires threaten a yet undetermined amount of trees, that shouldn’t be a cause of concern, Drayton said.

“It’s a natural occurring event,” he said. “But you have to manage it.”

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The Charlotte Observer contributed to this article.