The wildfires that have ravaged Gatlinburg the past few days have been a stark reminder of the dangers that still face McCreary County and surrounding areas as a prolonged dry spell has left the region extremely vulnerable to fires.
The Gatlinburg fires have caused at least four deaths, destroyed or damaged more than 250 buildings and forced the evacuation of more than 14,000 residents and tourists as the flames crept closer to the popular resort and tourist venue.
Officials believe the fires were “man-made,” but have not said if it was accidentally or deliberately set and are investigating.
Rains Monday and Tuesday night have helped slow or stop the progression of the fire, but clean-up and recovery efforts have only just begun.
Scenes of Gatlinburg could easily have been seen in McCreary County as similar conditions have been in place all month long. Local fire crews have been on high alert and have spent countless hours battling blazes both big and small for the past month.
According to McCreary County 911, at least 67 of 73 fire calls to the dispatch center in November have been wildfire-related. While some may have been small, easily contained outbreaks, some instances have been major – taking several hours to contain and extinguish.
The wildfires have taken their toll on local fire crews from all five volunteer departments and other federal agencies have been in seemingly constant action as the conditions for fire-spread have been present, and much of their work has been to prevent any active fires from spreading and threatening homes and business.
Tony Miller, Chief for the Whitley City Fire Department, says the danger for McCreary County is nowhere near over.
“It would take a significant amount of rainfall to alleviate the threat of what is happening in Gatlinburg happening here,” Miller said. “The rain we had Monday night did nothing to lessen the danger. With the wind we had today (Tuesday), all that moisture is gone and everything is dry again.”
“We need a couple days of long, sustained rainfall.”
While additional rain Tuesday night and into Wednesday helped suppress the danger, the risk is still present.
On Wednesday McCreary County Judge Executive Doug Stephens officially lifted the burn ban, but reminded citizens that Kentucky Fire Hazard Season is still in effect though December 15, and it is still illegal to set fire to any flammable material capable of spreading fire located within 150 feet of any woodland or brush land except between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.