A crack team of U.S. Forest Service firefighters from California is in the area to assist with fires that may start as drought conditions persist.
The Little Tujunga Hotshots, a 20-member “Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crew” from the Los Angeles area, arrived Thursday and are already at work in the Cherokee National Forest.
“They were ordered here by our region out of Atlanta,” said Leslie Morgan, district ranger of the Unaka District for the Cherokee National Forest.
“They will respond to any fire on national forest land or any land adjacent to the national forest. They could go to North Carolina and they could go to Virginia” if needed there, Morgan said.
As a Type 1 crew, the Little Tujunga Hotshots “are kind of elite firefighters,” Morgan said.
“They are highly trained for initial attack in particular,” she said.
The U.S. Forest Service considers Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crews the “most trained, skilled and experienced type of handcrew,” Morgan said.
A 20-member Cherokee Hotshot crew is stationed in Unicoi. Four engine units from elsewhere in the country have also been brought in, including one group staying in Greeneville from White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew in the area came from Idaho, Morgan said.
The presence of the firefighting crews in the Cherokee National Forest is a result of the dry, unseasonably warm weather in recent weeks. September rainfall in Greene County was 3 inches less than average, according to data collected at University of Tennessee AgResearch Center on East Allens Bridge Road.
Several small fires were recently started by lightning in the Unaka Mountain Wilderness Area of the Cherokee National Forest, and U.S. Forest Service crews have assisted the state on some private land fires.
The largest was 11 acres.
Morgan said the Little Tujunga Hotshots are doing preparatory work on some “prescribed burns” to create firebreaks and removing dead “hazard trees” from campsites in the area as they wait for other assignments.
“When the leaves come off the trees, that’s just fuel. The fire danger is just getting higher,” Morgan said. “Any time you have a lot of wind and low humidity in the fall, it dries out really fast. You can get some pretty squirrelly fire behavior.”
Weather forecasts call for gradually cooling temperatures and the possibility of some precipitation.
“We have weather stations out in the forest, and we’re actually trending very similar to 2016,” Morgan said. “Everybody’s pretty sensitive to that, and we’re just trying to be real vigilant. We’re actually drier at this time than we were in 2016.”
A series of wildfires that began in late November 2016 spread throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wildfires spread to inhabited areas of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, causing extensive damage.
No burn bans have been issued in the Cherokee National Forest.
“Right now, we don’t plan on issuing any burn bans, but if this weather continues and there isn’t any precipitation, we may do that,” Morgan said.
Fire season officially runs from Oct. 15 through May 15, but the state began requiring permits to burn outside on Sept. 23 because of the dry weather conditions.
Carefully maintained campfires, warming fires and fire pits are allowed in the Cherokee National Forest. Campfires are also allowed by the state Division of Forestry in areas at least 500 feet from woodlands, grasslands “and anything flammable,” said Brad Ball, Greene County forestry technician.
Permits are required for all other types of outdoor burning.
“It is dry, everybody’s got to admit that, but it is still not to the magnitude it was in 2016,” Ball said Friday. “There is still a lot of green out there.”
“We’re watching things very, very close,” Ball said. “As leaves turn and start to fall, conditions will (possibly) get worse. We’re just going to watch it and watch it close day to day.”
Burn permits from the state for vegetation and untreated wood can only be obtained in Greene County by calling 423-638-7841.
The state has an online system for issuing burn permits, but the computer function has not been activated so anyone considering burning must speak with a Division of Forestry representative.
“The thing about the burning permit system is it allows us to talk to people and find out what they’re burning and how to watch and care for their fires and how to extinguish their fires,” Ball said. “In Greene County, we’re writing burn permits as necessary. We’re writing them one day at a time.”
No permits will be issued over the weekend.
A burning ban remains in effect in the Town of Greeneville.
The Little Tujunga Hotshots will remain in the Cherokee National Forest for at least 21 days, Morgan said. All firefighters in the area are vigilant for possible threats.
“We’ve been having some small (fires) and catching them, but we are anticipating a big one and trying to be prepared,” she said.