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Fires Burn 75,000 Acres in West Virginia; Firefighter Killed In Kentucky

October 30, 1991

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ Gov. Gaston Caperton banned all outdoor burning and ordered authorities to watch for arsonists after fires damaged more than 75,000 acres of forest statewide. In Kentucky, a volunteer firefighter died.

The skies smelled like smoke today from 350 fires that had been spotted since Saturday in 31 West Virginia counties, said Bill Gillespie, head of the state Division of Forestry.

Some firefighters have had little sleep since Saturday.

″Some of them are pretty tired. they’ve been going for about a week now, and really hard for the past couple of days. They’re still out there, though,″ said Alan Miller, head of fire control for the division.

The sun appeared purplish-orange today as it peeked through the haze in Raleigh County, one of the hardest areas hit.

″It’s in the air,″ Gillespie said. ″There are fires all around us, a few big ones. The visibility’s really cut down.″

No damage to buildings or major injuries have been reported in West Virginia. Authorities estimated damage at more than $20 million.

In Kentucky, hundreds of firefighters were battling 21 blazes that covered about 2,500 acres on public land, said Jody Eberly, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Division of Forestry office in Winchester. An additional 3,000 acres of private woodlands had burned since the weekend, officials said.

The mayors of Paintsville, Pikeville and Prestonsburg declared states of emergency Tuesday because of the blazes.

″With that low humidity, just about anything that touches the ground is going to start a fire,″ Ms. Eberly said.

Near Fleming-Neon, Ky., in southeastern Kentucky, volunteer firefighter John Emerson Spangler, 19, of Mayking was killed and three others were injured, one critically, Tuesday night.

″I don’t know really how it happened,″ said Robert Cox, one of the injured firefighters, from his hospital bed. ″I haven’t found out for sure. I just remember the wind changing and the fire just trapping us against the mountain.″

The region has had dry weather for much of the month, but the National Weather Service predicted a cold front may bring showers by the weekend.

In West Virginia, the governor’s decree bans residents statewide from burning materials outdoors until further notice. State law had already banned burning between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Gillespie said 75 new fires were reported Tuesday and 30 continued burning from a day earlier. The greatest damage was in Mingo County in the southwestern part of the state, where up to 13,800 acres have burned.

Most of the fires were believed to be the work of arsonists, but some were started by spontaneous combustion in coal refuse in abandoned mines, officials said. Such mine fires, which in some cases smolder underground for years, can spread to the surface through openings in the ground.

In Virginia, a 70-acre fire in the Jefferson National Forest continued to burn today. The fire has spilled into part of West Virginia, forest spokesman Tom Poulin said.

He said the fire continued to spread. An air tanker dropped 2,000 gallons of fire retardant on the fire Tuesday, he said.

In Tennessee, about 2,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest have burned in the last week in 20 fires, some of which probably were set, authorities said. Some 300 firefighters were working today on the latest threatening blaze in Cocke County.

North Carolina officials canceled all burning permits in 42 counties, mostly in the western and Piedmont parts of the state, as a precaution. It was the first such ban in four years. Three small fires in the area were controlled Monday and Tuesday.

″With the weather like it is, we’ve got potential for some bad forest fires,″ said Rebecca Richards, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Raleigh, N.C. ″We’re trying to stop anything before it starts.″

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