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From The Air, NC Wildfires Are Dramatic And Gloomy

Unhealthy air is now covering the region, as smokes creeps east from wildfires in western North Carolina. You can see it as you walk down the street. From above, it's even more dramatic, says . WFAE environmental reporter David Boraks. He flew over the fire zone Friday and has this report:

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins tries to get up in the air every few weeks or so to photograph environmental threats along the river.  The flight plan today includes another item: Checking on fires that have burned nearly 50,000 acres across western North Carolina since Oct. 23.

“We are going to fly over most of the upper Catawba River basin and we will shoot kind of east northeast, go around south mountain state park, and should be up wind of and have a good shot of the wildfires,” Perkins said.  

It's sunny and hazy as our single-engine Cessna takes off from Shelby-Cleveland County Regional Airport. Pretty quickly, we're up a thousand feet.

The first thing you notice is that there IS a blue sky up there this week.  But there's also a blanket of brown smoke, in some places so thick you can't see the ground or the mountains.

It crawls up mountainsides and fills valleys. Some peaks are tall enough to poke above the gloom.

Pilot Pete Stauble says it's easy to make out where it's coming from.

PETE:  I can definitely see a little open path here between the two fires.

DAVID Do you know which fire is which?

PETE: This would be South Mountain State Park over here and that would be Lake Lure over there.


The South Mountain, or Chestnut Knob fire has burned about 6,000 acres about 10 miles south of Morganton.  The Lake Lure, or Party Rock fire, covers about 6,700 acres around Lake Lure and Chimney Rock.

Altogether, 15 fires are still burning across the western part of the state. Authorities think many were man-made, some possibly arson.

Perkins said smoke from the fires is the worst he's seen in North Carolina.

It's amazing. Usually you can see more than a mile or two in the distance and you can get a beautiful lay of the land. Today is just way too thick to see anything.

Stauble has a word for it: “We're flying in the soup. It was quite heavy today as far as the smoke coverage.”  

At one point Stauble had to turn the plane away from an ominous cloud over the South Mountain fire.

That’s almost scary, Perkins said. “It's like something out of a Harry Potter book or something an evil dark cloud that you can't go near,” he said.  

Gov. Pat McCrory says the state already has spent about 10 million dollars fighting the fires. And it could get worse before it gets better.

Weekend winds - with gusts over 30 miles an hour - could fan the flames, and cause the fires to spread. 

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.