by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
As of Nov. 16, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry reported 16 active fires burning in the Franklin-Grundy-Marion region of the Cumberland District of Tennessee: two in Franklin County, 11 in Grundy County, and three in Marion County.
Last weekend forestry service firefighters battled an 80-acre blaze of unknown origins in the gorge between Clifftops and Laurel Lake and a smaller fire attributed to arson in the Haven of Rest-Lankford Town Road vicinity of Tracy City. Two new fires broke out Sunday, a field fire in the Broadview-Belvidere area of Franklin County and a fire in the gulch on the Grundy County-Sequatchie County line. Tuesday, new fires broke out in the Gizzard Creek, Clouse Hill, and Gruetli-Laager areas of Grundy County and the Cades Cove and Prentice Cooper State Forest areas of Marion County.
Statewide, 67 active forest fires are burning, impacting 15,914 acres, with more than 20 new fires since last Friday. On Nov. 10 the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency declared a Level 3 State of Emergency. On Nov. 15, Governor Bill Haslam banned all fires including campfires and trash burning in 51 counties, Franklin, Grundy and Marion among the counties named.
“All fires in the Franklin-Grundy-Marion region are currently contained,” said Steve Rymer, Service Technician heading up Grundy County Forest Service. But Rymer cautions, “Fires from two weeks ago are still smoking. With dry leaves dropping from the trees, there’s the possibility of reburn. We’re monitoring all sites.”
Franklin-Grundy-Marion firefighters have responded to more than 40 blazes in the past month, impacting more than 3,000 acres, with 893 acres still actively burning in Marion County, 231 acres in Grundy County and 16 acres in Franklin County.
“I’ve only had one day off since Oct. 7,” said Travis Lawyer, a dozer operator with the Franklin County Forestry Service. “People phone in and don’t understand why we won’t issue them a burn permit to burn leaves. It’s so dry the root systems are burning off and trees are falling.”
Each county forestry station is staffed with an initial attack crew of five to six firefighters, who assist in the neighboring counties as needed. Franklin and Grundy counties recently received backup support from north and west Tennessee forestry service firefighters.
In the past month, more than 6,000 acres have burned in Bledsoe, Hamilton, Monroe and Sequatchie counties south and east of Sewanee, contributing to the smoke lingering in the air from local fires. Active fires in Bledsoe and Hamilton counties impacting more than 3,200 acres remain uncontained.
On Nov. 11, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) issued a Code Orange air quality alert for the Chattanooga metropolitan area. A Code Orange Alert means “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” persons with heart and lung disease, older adults and children. As of Nov. 16, the Air Quality Index map showed Sewanee and the surrounding plateau region in the Orange Alert or Red Alert category, a Red Alert meaning “everyone may begin experiencing ill health effects.”
The Tenn. Forestry Service has established Incident Management Posts in Kimball, Cookeville and Knoxville to coordinate firefighting efforts. On Nov. 10, three 20-person federal hand crews from Florida reported for service at the Kimball post.
A late October fire in the Raven’s Point area of South Cumberland State park destroyed a bridge and stair case on the new reroute part of the trail. The fire is still smoldering, and the trail is closed along the reroute area until further notice, said Park Ranger George Shinn.
“There is no end in sight,” said Rymer stressing the severity of the situation. Long range forecasts show no significant precipitation in Tennessee through the remainder of 2016.
As of Nov. 1, the Sewanee Utility District reported only 23 inches of rainfall for the year, less than the great drought of 2007, when the area received 25 inches for the same time period.
Rymer estimated 70 percent of the fires were arson, 30 percent were debris fires, and a few were caused by equipment sparks.
“Most of the fire investigators in the state are working the area,” Rymer said. “They are taking the issue more seriously than in the past.” Officials recently brought charges against an arsonist responsible for Sequatchie County fires.
Violation of a burn ban is considered reckless burning and is punishable as a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a fine of $2,500 and/or up to 11 months 29 days in jail.