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Weather May Help Whip Forest Fires in Some Southern States

November 10, 1987

ATLANTA (AP) _ Scattered light rain moved across parts of the drought-stricken South on Monday, but forest fires remained out of control in some states and forestry officials cautioned against too much optimism.

″We may get a couple of days of relief but one rain is not going to take us out of the fire season,″ said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Doug Williams in Atlanta.

He said rain fell over Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, plus Kentucky and West Virginia as a cold front swung eastward across the region. Firefighters reported higher humidity and morning dew in some areas, he said.

In Tennessee, the fires Monday menaced a nursing home and a natural gas field.

West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore called out the National Guard on Monday to help firefighters starting Wednesday. National Guardsmen also have been activated in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, where 10 helicopters sprayed homes threatened in Middlesboro.

Basil Vaughn, 48, chief of the Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department in rural Kentucky, died Sunday of a heart attack while fighting fires.

Heavy smoke from the fires had drifted northeastward and cut visibility as far as New England on Sunday. On Monday morning, the smelly haze had moved into northern Maine and New Hampshire, the National Weather Service said, but the advancing cold front began clearing the air over Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

New Jersey had its own forest fire problem Monday, with three fires charring a total of 900 acres.

As of Monday, more than 10,000 fires had charred approximately 224,900 acres on public and private land since Oct. 27 in the 13 states that make up the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Region, the regional headquarters in Atlanta reported. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia all have had at least some fires in the past two weeks, according to the Forest Service.

Fires in West Virginia, which is not included in that region, have charred more than 150,000 acres, including one that had burned more than 15,000 acres by Monday in Mingo County. The state estimates damage at $45 million, mostly in timber loss.

The combined total acreage in all 14 states equals 584 square miles.

The weather service predicted from one-half to 2 inches of rain would fall on Alabama, with the heaviest precipitation expected over the area of the worst fires, around Tuscaloosa and Anniston.

But Richard Cumby, fire projection director for the Alabama Forestry Commission, cautioned that the relief could be temporary. ″If the rain is followed by cool, windy weather we could be back in the same situation in a couple of days,″ he said.

Heavy rain dumped by a tropical storm has kept Florida from having major problems.

The Division of Forestry has sent 55 firefighters to other states, said Mike Long, chief of fire control.

Rain that sprinkled the woods of West Virginia on Monday gave weary crews in Raleigh County a break. But in Logan, ″So far, all it’s done is make things smokier,″ said firefighter Jerry Bias, who also serves as a coal mine inspector for the state Department of Energy.

″We need 1.8 inches of rain in 24 hours just to make a dent,″ said acting West Virginia state forester Ralph Glover. However, he added, ″Any amount of rain will help even if it just slows things down.″

Rising humidity in Tennessee and light rain Sunday was neutralized by wind that kept pushing fires across fire lines, forestry officials said.

Firefighters in southwestern Virginia faced a new threat with the possibility that fires would cross the state line from West Virginia into Virginia’s Tazewell County. ″We think there are about 13 fires″ threatening to cross the border in rugged terrain, said Lou Southard of the Virginia Department of Forestry.

A fire near Huntsville, Tenn.,threatened a natural gas field and a nursing home, said Russell Newsman, regional director of Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

″They’ve got a line around that fire ... It’s partially contained,″ he said. ″We’re very concerned about it.″

A 6,000-acre fire was out of control near the Well Spring area of Campbell County, where a dozen families live.

″They’re frantically trying to get their firebreaks,″ said Newsman. ″Most of (the houses) are fairly new - nice, big log structures and rustic houses. The people up there are very scared.″

Arson was blamed for many fires in the 14 states.

Virginia authorities arrested an adult and a 16-year-old Monday on arson charges, Southard said.

Tennessee reported the arrests of eight arson suspects this month, and investigators said they have leads on others. State forester Dwight Barnett said he believes the investigation is helped by a $2,000 reward the state puts up for information leading to convictions.

Arsonists historically operate in the same parts of the state and set fires for ″tradition, recreation and revenge,″ Barnett said.

Forest Service spokesman Terry Lewis in Atlanta said that in addition to the problems of dryness, wind and arsonists, falling leaves were hampering firefighters. ″They get a fire line up, and leaves fall in,″ he said. ″Someone told me it was like shoveling snow in a snowstorm.″

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