California no longer has a lock on wildfires this year. Tennessee is currently suffering through what is considered normal for the Golden State. Firemen are busy setting up battle lines to fight wicked flames in several parts of the Volunteer State.
Chattanooga, in southeastern Tennessee near the Georgia border, is the scene of one raging blaze that was partially halted in its advance up Signal Mountain. Tennessee firefighters enlisted the aid of several water tanker helicopters from the Georgia Forestry Commission in their attempt to control the inferno. The strategy worked on the eastern side of the mountain, where Forestry Division officials were trying to protect several homes from damage at Middle Creek. The western side of Signal Mountain, where no homes are threatened, is scheduled to be the firemen’s target starting Tuesday at daybreak. The fire is affecting the city’s tourism industry since the mountain is a Civil War era attraction as well as a popular area park.
In Knoxville, almost four square miles of forest land had burned by Monday evening after a string of fires that stretched the area’s fire fighting resources to the limit. No one has been arrested yet, but authorities say that ten fires near the city were caused by arson, one was ignited by fireworks, and two were the result of debris burning fires that flared out of control. Cherokee National Forest district ranger Terry Bowerman told of an additional source of fuel for these infernos. There are thousands of dead pine trees in the area due to a proliferation of southern pine beetles.
An unusually large amount of fires have been reported all over Tennessee this past weekend, including one that torched some forty acres near Nashville, but the bulk of the activity has been in the eastern part of the state. Robert Rhinehart, who works in Chattanooga’s Forestry Division office, told reporters that there were 28 other fires near that city in the past few days, and they have devastated about 300 acres, not counting the blaze on Signal Mountain. Police and fire officials have no concrete leads yet, but the amount of incidents is pointing to what may be a group of arsonists working together.
Eastern Tennessee has few big cities, and this means a lack of organized, big budget fire fighting departments. Most of the people involved in battling the blazes are volunteers. Campbell County fire chief Don McGuire says his resources are spread very thin. Fuel prices are a great burden, as is the wear and tear on vehicles and equipment. McGuire’s beat includes four fire stations serving half of the county, and he has to do it on a budget of $25,000. His most-used piece of equipment is a thirty-year old Dodge fire truck that constantly needs to be coaxed into working. McGuire depends on grants and donations to provide the money he needs to outfit his crews at a cost of $1400 per man. Making matters worse, Campbell County is booming right now, with many new housing developments being threatened by the fires. The constant danger to these new homes, including a recent 1200 acre blaze in Sevier County, has overworked the volunteers this year.
Rhinehart reported that southeast Tennessee has been hit by 352 wildfires since January 1 of this year, and over sixty percent have been certified as arson. Adding to the firefighters’ woes are extremely high winds and lower than usual rainfall in that same period. Only 6.28 inches of precipitation have fallen since New Year’s Day, whereas normal rainfall for this period is over fifteen inches. Wildfires are not rare in Eastern Tennessee, but the normal amount of rain usually helps keep them in check. Record high temperatures near ninety degrees in the region have also helped fan the flames.