Clayton – Anxious North Georgia residents are asking why Gov. Nathan Deal has not declared a state of emergency and dispatched Georgia National Guardsmen to help put out the wildfires raging across thousands of acres here.
They voiced their concerns at a public briefing at the Rabun County Courthouse this week after learning from U.S. Forest Service officials that the Rock Mountain Fire is spreading north and east and could grow to more than double its size.
The fire is burning through Rabun and Towns counties in Georgia and Clay and Macon counties in North Carolina. So far, it has consumed some 71 square miles on federal land in North Georgia. That’s more than the size of Washington D.C. Firefighters have battled to contain the blazes, which have been fueled by wind and stubbornly dry conditions.
“If we get the National Guard in, can they help you?” one man asked the U.S. Forest Service officials Monday evening. “What’s wrong with our governor?”
Moments later, another man echoed the same point.
“Wouldn’t that do everybody good?” he said about bringing the Guard in to help. “And if I’m correct… why isn’t everyone in Rabun County calling Gov. Deal’s office? Fifteen thousand people would mean a lot to maybe getting his attention.”
A Deal spokesman said the governor and top state agencies have been in daily contact with local officials.
“The state has responded to and immediately approved all local requests for assistance and will continue to do so,” Jen Ryan said. “The governor also issued an executive order banning the use of fireworks and will continue to approve any necessary measure to assist our local emergency management agencies.”
Ryan noted that the majority of the fires are on federal land.
Noel Livingston, the federal incident commander for the Rock Mountain Fire, said the decision on state resources is up to the governor
“Can they help us? Yes,” he said to those at the meeting in Clayton on Monday. “We use the National Guard frequently in the West in terms of logistical support. That is frequently the most common use of the Guard.”
“Sometimes we use them as firefighters. They have to go through training just like our firefighters do. They probably haven’t had that. So that would take some time to get them up to speed.”
Last week, the Republican governor ratcheted up the drought level in 52 counties throughout metro Atlanta and North Georgia. That triggers new water use restrictions.
At the time, Deal said he was considering asking federal officials for an emergency declaration to help combat the fires but said the state wasn’t quite there yet.
“We believe that right now, we have the resources that we need, but if it gets worse, then of course, we’ll need additional help,” he said.
Betty Jewett, the forest supervisor for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, said the governor is getting daily briefings on the fires.
“I think he is considering everything,” she said of Deal. “And if it comes down to that we really need to ask for the National Guard to come in, I think we could work something out with the governor.”
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