By Dave Russell
Thick smoke covered Jackson County Monday when four fires broke out, three of them within about 20 minutes of each other.
Firefighters’ busy day started with an early morning structure fire in the Whittier area. (See story on page 3A.).
That afternoon, from about 2-2:20 p.m., three calls about brush fires came in to 911 dispatch.
The brush fires most likely resulted from homeowners burning debris, N.C. Forest Service Jackson County Ranger Eric Fanslou said.
No charges had been filed as of Tuesday, but law enforcement was investigating, he said.
The brush fires were scattered across the county in the Canada, Savannah and Balsam communities. Detailed fire reports had not been filed as of press time.
“The fire departments in the communities all responded to the fires in their districts,” Fanslou said.
Forest Service firefighters worked at all three sites, he said.
“My smokechaser, Hunter Nations, and I were paged out to the fire in the Canada district,” Fanslou said. “The pager kept continually going off, and I dispatched our personnel to help the fire departments that were already on scene.”
Someone driving on U.S. 23/74 near Balsam Loop Road reported a fire on the north side of the highway at about 2 p.m., Fanslou said.
“If I had to guess, it was probably about 10 acres or less that burned,” he said. “They worked there for quite a few hours. I would say they had it controlled within the first three hours, but it was maybe six or seven hours before it was fully contained. As far as doing what we call mopping up and cleaning up and making sure everything is holding, that could be quite a few hours after that.”
The Balsam-Willets-Ochre Hill and Saunooke (Haywood County) fire departments and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office were on scene. A scout plane from Asheville came to direct firefighters’ efforts, but thick smoke hampered visibility from the air and the plane returned to base, he said. Staff of the local BRIDGE program helped as well, Fanslou said.
Firefighters conducted a “burnout” after the fire was controlled, Fanslou said.
“That kind of gets rid of the extra fuel, and that definitely made sure it was contained after they finished the burnout,” he said.
The Savannah blaze was off Brushy Fork Road in the Greens Creek area.
The Savannah Fire Department responded, as did personnel from the Forest Service, Fanslou said.
About an acre burned in that fire, which took about 45 minutes to an hour to contain.
The Canada fire was near Sols Creek Church Road off N.C. 281.
In addition to the Canada Fire Department, Fanslou and Nations, the Cullowhee Fire Department and Emergency Services Director Todd Dillard responded to the scene.
The fire burned about an acre and took about an hour to contain, he said.
The fire department got a good jump on the blaze, but the terrain and the conditions made it difficult, he said.
Scanner traffic indicated two structures threatened by flames, but Fanslou downplayed the seriousness of the situation.
“If there was no fire department present or nobody called, it would have been a problem, but not enough that it was within seconds or minutes,” he said. “The people who were burning the debris were smart enough to call immediately or else it would have been an issue.”
A vehicle burned in the fire.
“I don’t think it was a vehicle someone was driving, I think it was just being worked on,” Fanslou said. “It wasn’t like someone lost their everyday vehicle, I believe.”
Jackson was not the only county plagued by brush fires, Fanslou said.
“I know Haywood had four as well within about an hour, Clay County had one and Cherokee County had one,” he said.
There is not currently a burning ban in effect, but permits are required to burn outdoors, Fanslou said.
“Jackson County is not considered a high hazard county, but you do need a permit,” he said.
Permits are available at some stores, at the Forest Service office at 131 Glenn Cabe Road and online at www.ncforestservice.gov/burn_permits/burn_standard.asp.
“If you are going to burn debris, all the directions are with the burn permit,” Fanslou said. “Don’t burn near the edge of the woods or tall grass. Make an effort to scrape around your burn piles. I understand people have lives and life gets in the way, but if you are going to burn, make sure you stay with it.”