North Georgia wildfires grow

Two of the largest ongoing wildfires in the North Georgia mountains grew by more than 3,000 acres Thursday, but officials said efforts to contain the fires have been successful.

The largest active fire, in Rough Ridge, has burned about 24,765 acres in the Cohutta Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Fannin County, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Brian Grant said.

More than 190 people were working to contain the blaze Thursday, and they used two helicopters, eight engines and two bulldozers. The Rough Ridge fire is 40 percent contained.

Grant said the most difficult part about fighting the fire is the wilderness’ rough and varied terrain.

“The perimeter of the fire is doing really well,” Grant said. “It’s nice and cold.”

He said he expects flames to burn for some time. There are positive aspects to the burning, Grant said.

It cleans the forest and allows animals to migrate easier. That cleaning will also stimulate growth to give animals new food, Grant said.

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The smaller Rock Mountain blaze, spanning 8,545 acres about 10 miles north of Clayton in northeast Georgia, was 20 percent contained Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service reported.

Both 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.

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Authorities have taken roughly 272 calls about wildfires since Friday, Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. About 13 of those fires were still active Thursday.

A new blaze, a woods/grass fire off a roadway in Dacula, was reported Wednesday afternoon. There were no injuries and no immediate exposure hazards identified, officials said.

Fire restrictions banning open air fires, smoking as well as fire pits, grills and rings kicked in Thursday along the Appalachian National Scene Trail. The trail begins in Springer Mountain in Fannin County and stretches 78.6 miles through North Georgia, where the majority of wildfires are located in the state.

Dry conditions prompted the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to announce the restrictions Wednesday. The restrictions extend to parts of the trail in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Those states have experienced dry conditions, wildfires and burn bans, too.

“These restrictions will better provide for public safety,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy spokesman Jordan Bowman said in a release. “The southern half of the A.T. and surrounding lands are significantly dry and the potential for wildland fires is high.”

The restrictions will remain until significant rain or snow cover the area, Bowman said.

The recent wildfires have exhausted resources and required assistance from other agencies. At least 27 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 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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. Forsyth fire spokesman Jason Shivers said his county hadn’t received reports of wildfires but is under a burn ban that restricts recreational burns. Cobb County officials sent a reminder Thursday that a temporary ban on all outdoor burning has been in effect since Oct. 28.

“The ban is expected to be lifted when significant rainfall is received and notification will be sent out when burning may resume,” Cobb fire spokeswoman Denell Boyd said.

For the first time in more than 50 years, metro Atlanta went 30 consecutive days without rain this week. That has happened only three other times: 1904, 1952 and 1961, Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Karen Minton said.

Thursday was the 32nd day without measurable rainfall, the television station reported.

Metro Atlanta has avoided the worst of the wildfires, but the most frequent impact from the fires has been smoke in the air and poor air quality.

Multiple districts across the state are keeping students indoors. Cherokee schools moved outdoor activities inside. Principals in Cobb and Gwinnett have been asked to use their best judgment about when to keep students inside. Fannin schools canceled outdoor recess. Jackson schools canceled some outdoor activities, and Hall limited outdoor activities to mornings only, Channel 2 reported.

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Channel 2 meteorologist Karen Minton said a shift in wind direction Thursday will help clear some of the smoke.

Expect “lots of sunshine today” and “winds out of the northwest to start,” Minton said. “But they’ll shift, then start coming in out of the south and southwest. That will give us a break from smoke today” and Friday.

There is a 10 percent chance of rain Saturday, when smoke could return to metro Atlanta.