Crews retreat from Table Rock fire over safety concerns

Crews retreat from Table Rock fire over safety concerns

Credit: Mark Steven Houser

Crews retreat from Table Rock fire over safety concerns

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by WCNC.com Staff

WCNC.com

Posted on November 17, 2013 at 12:04 PM

Updated Sunday, Nov 17 at 12:09 PM

MORGANTON, N.C. -- The Table Rock wildfire continues to burn and has now destroyed some 2,700 acres as of Saturday, since it was discovered last weekend.

Fire crews are being pulled back from the Table Rock Fire in the Linville Gorge Wilderness area of the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina, as high winds from a storm front threaten safety.

The Forestry Service says they are concerned about high winds affecting their ability to safely continue suppression efforts on the Table Rock wildfire. Officials continued that they don't believe winds will push the fire beyond containment lines, but worry that the winds could bring down "snags" in the burn area.

Until the storm front that's expected to move through Sunday evening passes, authorities have pulled back fire crews. Crews will resume work on securing containment lines and cutting hazard trees when it's safe to do so.

One structure on private property is threatened at this time. The Forestry Service is working with the homeowner on "defensible space measures".

The US Department of Agriculture said the fire jumped over a containment line at Chimney Gap Saturday. That line was difficult to construct there, officials said, because of steep, rocky terrain that made certain areas inaccessible.

(Click here to see viewer-submitted photos of the blaze)

"We had that weather front that came through.  And that little bit of rain we got, we didn’t get very much rain up here. But did bring a lot of wind," said Deborah Walker with the U.S. Forest Service.

Smoke from the fire has resulted in the issuance of a Code Orange Air Quality Alert for four western counties: Alexander, Burke, Catawba and Caldwell. The alert means the smoke could cause problems for anyone with respiratory problems or very young children. Officials say the “super fog” could also create hazardous driving conditions.

Bianca Bolds was having a hard time with the smoke as she walked through downtown Morganton with her grandmother.

"It’s like I have asthma, and so it has been really like a task.  I'm from D.C., and as soon as I came here it was like, why is my breathing so labored?"

Her grandmother, Omer Bolds said, "I live here in Morganton and it is coming all the way over here. You can smell it in the house too," she said.

Walker says the more than 100 firefighters who are tackling the flames have been using a technique called "burn out,” meaning they go in to set new fires.

"We go in with our crews and helicopters, and we basically burn the area between the line and the fire perimeter. What it does is stop the progression of the fire," Walker said.

The Forest Service says the fire expected to continue growing for the next couple of days.  Unable to transport heavy machinery into the wilderness, the firefighters are using hand tools to dig trenches around the fire.

While no homes are now threatened, some area residents like Taylor Pons, whose family has a home nearby, is worried.

"There are a lot of valuables from my family that are up there that we really need to try and save. We need to try and get up there," she said.

The fire is estimated to be 40 percent contained at this time.

Fire crews are plotting their strategy at a base camp they have set up in a park in Morganton.

There they have maps and can communicate with the crews on the fire lines and with helicopters that are flying overhead.

"We are not doing a direct attack to the fire perimeter because it is such steep terrain and very dangerous for our crews to be in there," said Walker.

She also urged area residents not to try to get close to the fire area because it is out of control and potentially deadly to anyone who might get stuck in the area.

No injuries have been reported.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.  But the U.S. Forest Service wants to hear from anyone who was at the Table Rock picnic area Monday, where investigators believe the fire sparked.

Authorities say several trails in the Table Rock Mountain and Shortoff Mountain area are closed to the public. The Table Rock Picnic Area is also closed. If you're looking to visit the Linville Gorge, you're advised to visit the National Forests in North Carolina website for the latest closures.

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