1,400 firefighters battle NC mountain wildfires that now top 33,000 acres

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — As if more than a dozen wildfires burning nearly 34,000 acres in the North Carolina mountains aren’t bad enough, now rockslides are threatening areas and weather forecasters say rain won’t fall in the wildfire areas Sunday night.

A weather system moving up from the south is expected to bring rain to much of North Carolina, but it will only brush some western counties, where fire crews are battling the massive fires.

Crews have been at work for at least a week now as 18 fires grew from 3,000 acres early last week to exceed 33,000 acres on Sunday afternoon.

An evacuation was ordered for part of Chimney Rock in Rutherford County near Lake Lure and mandatory evacuations were already issued in five other North Carolina counties.

The so-called Party Rock Fire near Lake Lure had its western edge move further downhill off Round Top Mountain early Sunday, which put the blaze at the wood line in some areas of Chimney Rock Village, officials said.

The Tellico Fire is now the largest blaze in the state, covering 9,965 acres in Macon and Swain counties. It is about 33 percent contained. On Sunday, fire officials merged the Ferebee and Tellico Fires together since they were only separated by “dozer line.”

And, to make matters worse, officials closed a 10-mile section of U.S. 19/74 in the Nantahala Gorge because they worry the Tellico Fire will cause rocks and debris to fall in a rockslide.

The number of crews working on the wildfires has grown significantly in the last two days. On Friday, less than 1,000 personnel were fighting the fires, but as of Sunday just under 1,400 people are helping.

Those crews include firefighters and equipment from Chapel Hill Fire, Wake County Fire and Orange County Rural Fire Department.

Meanwhile, an anticipated weather system will provide a little help, but not the much-needed rain.

The North Carolina Forest Service says more moist air over the area should give firefighters a chance to make significant progress.

But, rain will miss the most-needed areas, forecasters say.

“Unfortunately, for the mountains, the system coming up from the south to give central North Carolina some rain will stay east of the wildfires. Nothing more than a sprinkle out west, so that won’t help matters at all,” said CBS North Carolina Meteorologist Bill Reh.

Firefighters say the fire danger will rise as drier weather returns and more leaves fall.

On Sunday, officials did have some good news to pass along: four aircraft saved dozens of homes from the wildfires on Friday when they dumped about 113,000 gallons of water on the Shooting Creek fire, near Hayesville and Piney Top Mountain.

Those aircraft, which were three K-Max helicopters and one 1970s vintage UH-1 “Huey,” stopped the approaching fire by dropping the same amount of water that is in five backyard swimming pools, authorities say.

The latest county with evacuations is Henderson County, which issued a mandatory order Saturday for people who live near and on Shumont Road.

Earlier this week, evacuations were ordered in Lake Lure in Rutherford County along with mandatory evacuations in parts of Graham, Swain, Clay and Macon counties.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report