Wildfires consume 2,100 acres of drought-stricken areas in NC mountains, prompting air quality alerts

By: - November 7, 2023 6:05 am
A map of North Carolina showing the far southwestern part -- Cherokee, Macon and Clay counties -- are under a Code Red air quality alert. That means the air is unhealthy for all people.

Three counties in far southwestern part of North Carolina — Cherokee, Macon and Caly — are in a Code Red alert, meaning the air is unhealthy for all people.

A Code Red air quality alert has been issued for several southwestern counties of North Carolina because of smoke from wildfires that have burned more than 2,100 acres in the mountains.

Drought-stricken Cherokee, Clay and Macon counties are under a Code Red — meaning the air is unhealthy for everyone, according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. A Code Orange has been issued for Graham, Swain, Transylvania, Henderson and Jackson counties, including the southern mountain ridges; that means people with asthma, respiratory and heart problems should avoid the outdoors.

The largest blaze, known as the Collett Ridge Fire, has consumed 2,129 acres in Cherokee County, four miles south of Andrews. As of Monday evening, it was 0% contained. Lightning started the fire on Oct. 23, and it has expanded since. As of Monday, 94 firefighters were combatting the blaze, including a 20-person hand crew, 10 engines, two helicopters, one air attack platform, and overhead personnel.

In Henderson County, near Edneyville, the Poplar Drive Fire has burned 250 acres in size and 5% contained, according to the N.C. Forest Service. Two homes and an outbuilding have been lost, while another home sustained minimal damage, the Forest Service reported on its website. Henderson County Emergency Management and Henderson County Sheriff’s Office have implemented evacuations, the Forest Service wrote, and at least 34 structures currently threatened. The cause of the fire is unknown, the Forest Service wrote.

The wildfires are exacerbated by severe drought conditions that have affected 14 counties in this part of North Carolina. Statewide, rainfall has been scarce in 94 of 100 counties: 47 are in a moderate drought, with another 33 classified as abnormally dry, according to the N.C. Drought Monitor.

A map of North Carolina shows that most of the southwestern part of the state is in a severe drought. West of Greensboro, most areas are in a moderate drought. And nearly all of North Carolina east of Burlington is abnormally dry.
(Graphic: NC Drought Monitor)

“This is one of the top five driest September and October periods on record for much of western North Carolina,” said Corey Davis, assistant state climatologist on the NC State Climate Office website. Since Sept. 1, Charlotte has had only 1.86 inches of rain, which is the driest start to fall there since 1961.

“In southern mountain locations such as Asheville and Murphy, the last time it was this dry at this time of year was in 2016, which was part of a memorably extreme and impactful drought,” Davis wrote.

The state climate office reported a statewide average precipitation of 1.15 inches last month, which ranks as the 10th-driest October since 1895. It was also North Carolina’s driest October since 2000, which had a record low 0.08 inches of rain on average across the state.

Asheville had 0.7 inches of rain and its 10th-driest October in the past 72 years, according to the state climate office. Marion, in McDowell County received only 0.64 inches of rain, which ranked as its 11th-driest October since 1893. Lake Lure, in Rutherford County, was even drier, with only 0.59 inches of rain. That is its 5th-driest October out of 57 years with observations, according to the state climate office.

Federal weather officials report that 5.6 million North Carolinians are living in a drought-stricken area, a 200% increase from last week.

A burn ban is in effect for Burke, Cherokee, Clay, Cleveland, Gaston, Graham, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain and Transylvania counties until further notice.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.