Health officials in North Carolina have issued an air quality advisory for air pollution in the western section of the state as smoke from a now 1,800-acre wildfire in Burke County drifts downwind.
Officials say people in Burke, Caldwell and McDowell counties could experience unhealthy air quality, depending on wind directions. Police in Boone say they are getting reports of fairly heavy smoke in the area, which is believed to be from the wildfire.
The 1,800-acre wildfire in the Pisgah National Forest, which has been out of control since it started Monday, is producing heavy smoke that could contain high levels of particle pollution. The fire is centered in the Linville Gorge Wilderness near Table Rock Mountain.
More than 100 firefighters have been called in from across North Carolina and other states, but so far they have not been able to control it.
“So far only 5% of it is contained,” said Deborah Walker of the U.S. Forest Service. “We are trying to get containment lines around it but the terrain is very tough.”The fire, known as the “Table Rock Fire,” is about one-quarter mile southwest of Table Rock Mountain in the east-central part of the Gorge.
Firefighters are cleaning up existing roads, trails and existing fire lines from previous fires to contain the wildfire.
Thursday morning the fire was estimated to have charred 300 acres. The sixfold increase during the day is the result of low humidity and wind that picked up in the afternoon.
The fire is on the Linville Gorge side of the Table Rock mountain area but also has burned an area outside of the Gorge itself.
Until Thursday, most of the smoke had gone into the Morganton area. But as the winds shifted, it headed north and northeast.
In the Gingercake Acres development, a few miles from the fire itself, smoke was thickening and ash particles, looking like snowflakes, began falling. “That is definitely not snow,” said Ed McClure outside of his house.
He could also tell that the smoke cloud was getting thicker. “I am noticing it and my nose is getting plugged from it,” he said.
Forestry officials said the smoke will increase on Friday as backburning operations get underway to clear out some containment lines. A helicopter will be used to drop ping-pong ball sized incendiary devices to set the fires. Officials advise anyone with respiratory problems to stay indoors if they are in an area where the smoke is thick.
Officials are not sure how long the firefighting efforts will be needed. No homes are threatened at this time, they said, but crews want to make sure the blaze does not break out into an area where that could happen.
Dan Vance, who has hiked the Linville Gorge area most of his life said it would be very tough to stop the fire with manpower alone. “They’re gonna need some rain to stop it because they can’t get to it.”
Health officials say the smoke from the fire can impair breathing and aggravate symptoms in people with respiratory problems, and irritate the lungs in healthy individuals. People with chronic lung ailments and children should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activity.
The Forest Service is asking anyone who may have seen someone camping or was in the area of the Table Rock picnic area Monday to call the Forest Service at 828-652-2144.