The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Western N.C. wildfires continue burning in drought, causing air quality issues

Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Wildfires in western North Carolina are still burning more than a week after Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency on Nov. 8 for 33 counties, citing the drought conditions and wildfires posing a risk to public health and safety.

The North Carolina Forest Service implemented a burn ban in 30 counties due to the increased fire risk. The ban prohibits the open burning of yard waste and commercial field clearing practices and cancels all burning permits.

The Poplar Drive and Collett Ridge fires are currently the two largest wildfires still burning in the state, at 98 percent and 79 percent containment, respectively. The Poplar Drive fire has burned approximately 434 acres of land in Henderson County north of Hendersonville. The cause of the fire was found to be a debris burn that occurred on private property.

Relative humidity levels and possible wind events in the next few days are concerns for Poplar Drive fire containment, Philip Jackson, NCFS public information officer, said.

The Collett Ridge fire, which was caused by lightning, has burned over 5,400 acres in Cherokee and Clay counties. The smoke produced by the fire has negatively impacted air quality index readings in the area. 

On Thursday morning, an area just south of Anderson, N.C. — which is in Cherokee County — registered an air quality index of 279, which is classified as “very unhealthy.” According to the EPA, a rating of “very unhealthy” suggests all residents of the area will notice negative health impacts.

Both Clay County and almost all of Cherokee County are under extreme drought, according to maps released on Thursday from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's U.S. Drought Monitor. Much of Henderson County is also under an extreme drought.

 William Vizuete is a UNC professor of public health who researches air pollution and particulate matter. He said PM2.5, a more fine particle produced by wildfire smoke, is small enough to reach the deep part of human lungs and enter the bloodstream.

Even though PM2.5 is known to be harmful to human health, Vizuete said the amount of PM2.5 that becomes harmful varies in different regional locations because of the composition of the PM. 

This variation is due to the thousands of chemical species and levels of oxidation that occur in the atmosphere and as a result, he said, what people breathe in is a combination of many things.

Data from the NCFS shows wildfire occurrences on a slight overall downward trend since the 1980s, with the implementation of modern management practices and fire safety education in communities following the state’s largest wildfires on record in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Still, drought conditions can make trees, grasses and leaves more flammable, while also increasing the rate at which a fire can spread. 

The NCFS has recorded 704 fires so far this month.

“October and the first half of November are, climatologically speaking, the driest time of the year,” UNC geography professor Chip Konrad said. 

At the sites of the fires, officials say containment is progressing.

“We're looking at releasing resources to go back home or within the region to help support other fire operations,” Wes McKinney, operations trainee for the Southern Area Blue Team, said. “We feel good about what we have in here.” 

Jackson said the NCFS is working thoroughly at Poplar Drive fire containment lines to keep them clear of any foliage that could create the potential for re-burn. He said backpack leaf blowers are used to keep the containment line clear. 

Another crucial tool being used is infrared drone flights, called IR flights, to detect where hotspots remain at the fire site, Jackson said

“We get an updated map that will show these hotspots, and then we know where to place crews the next day when we start the morning shift to go attack those areas where the heat showed up on the drones,” he said.

Jackson said crews at the Poplar Drive fire will continue to monitor containment lines, especially given current conditions.

“But otherwise, that 95 percent containment is a real good sign and things are looking good,” he said.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.


@DTHCityState |