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Drought and wildfires plague a region typically known for its ‘rainforest-like’ climate

Brad Lang, a firefighter with the Alabama Forestry Commission, sets a backfire to help extinguish a wildfire near Brookside, Ala., on Thursday. (Jay Reeves/AP)

The Southeast is not a region that we tend to associate with wildfires. It’s humid, it’s wet, and twice this year deadly floods ravaged vast areas of two states — Louisiana and North Carolina.

Yet here we are, talking about tinderbox conditions propelled by a historic drought and record-breaking heat.

On Wednesday morning, there were 11 active, large fires burning across the region. There are at least 10 large fires burning in six states, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Dozens of smaller fires are smoldering across the Southeast, filling populated valleys with a hazy, brown smoke.

On Monday, a gas pipeline exploded in Alabama, setting off three new wildfires in the region. One Colonial Pipeline contractor was killed, and five others were injured.

In fact, so many fires are raging in the mountains of far-western North Carolina that the Forest Service called in reinforcements from California, New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida and Oregon. The fires have burned at least 800 acres since Oct. 23.

On Wednesday morning, the Forest Service reported the Boteler Peak fire in North Carolina grew from 150 acres to 380 acres since Tuesday.

In Fannin County, Ga., one of the largest wildfires in the Southeast had consumed nearly 3,000 acres as of Wednesday morning, and it is still growing. The Rough Ridge wildfire, along with the other major fires in the Southeast, is burning in rugged country with steep terrain and dense vegetation. Hundred-foot cliffs that usually provide physical challenge and scenic overlooks to hikers are proving to be a major obstacle for firefighters. For many crews on the ground, fire suppression would not be possible without air support dousing flames with water scooped from nearby lakes and reservoirs.

So far, there have been no fatalities from the wildfires, and damage is minimal to buildings and other structures.

The drought behind this rash of wildfires has been building throughout the year. Many counties are now experiencing “exceptional drought” conditions, which are the most severe on the U.S. Drought Monitor scale. Birmingham, Ala., received just 0.68 inches of rain in September — nearly three inches below average for the month. The city received no measurable rain at all in October. Rainfall was a meager 12 percent of normal in Jackson, Miss., and 24 percent in Chattanooga, Tenn. Across the Southeast, the refrain is the same: little rainfall and a lot of heat.

Several large cities had their warmest summer on record in 2016, including Charleston, S.C.; Asheville, N.C.; and Athens and Savannah, Ga. During this same time, the temperature did not drop below 70 degrees for 84 consecutive days in Atlanta and 82 days in Birmingham.

The heat has continued unabated into the fall. Tuesday was the warmest November day on record in Huntsville, Ala.

With little to no rain in the immediate forecast, fire restrictions have been put in place in the national forests, including Cherokee in Tennessee; Nantahala and Pisgah in North Carolina; Chattahoochee and Oconee in Georgia; and Bankhead and Conecuh in Alabama. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, banned back-country fires — very unusual because much of the park, climate-wise, is considered a “temperate rain forest.” The last time the park instituted fire restrictions was in 2007, park spokeswoman Dana Soehn told the Knoxville, Tenn., News Sentinel.

In Chattanooga, a water conservation notice was posted in September, saving more than 1 million gallons, the Times Free Press reported. But it has not been enough for the hard-hit region, and officials are considering implementing even stricter water bans.

Angela Fritz contributed to this post.

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