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Peculiar Chimney Rock Fire Perplexes Experts

Mark Washburn
Charlotte Observer
Despite the misspelling of “dense,” the truth of the message on this flashing sign in Bat Cave was unmistakable to anyone with a nose.";s:

By Mark Washburn
The Charlotte Observer

No one can remember a wildfire as peculiar as the monster gnawing through the gorge above the village of Chimney Rock.

It burrows beneath swaths cut to contain it. It conjures unforeseen winds from the steep terrain. It dashes erratically this way and that, like a running back punching for open field.

And never mind the frustration of fire managers – it has even spooked the hardy, reclusive mountain coyotes.

“We’ve had sightings of them from several people,” Carrie Harmon of the N.C. Forest Service said Sunday.

Chimney Rock, population 109, was deserted Sunday except for about 200 firefighters from as far away as Florida and Oregon battling the stubborn inferno with shovels, rakes, hoes, backfires and bulldozers. Helicopters thumped through the air during the weekend, muscling water buckets the size of a compact car.

Chimney Rock was under mandatory evacuation and boating was discouraged on Lake Lure to let the whirly-birds dip at will.

Overnight Saturday, fangs of flame ripped down the gulch toward two houses in Chimney Rock. Firefighters beat back the incursion, and the town, its dwellings and all its residents remain so far unscarred.

A California-style fire

No one will hazard a guess on when the unpredictable blaze will be tamed – it had munched through 3,400 acres and was considered only 15 percent contained Sunday. It was still feasting avidly on years of crisp detritus cast by trees to the forest floor.

So deep is the undergrowth and so hot the fire that it has crept through carbon packed in the earth beneath the alleys slashed in the last week by bulldozers as containment lines. It is unusually explosive.

“This fire has the characteristics of western fires, of California fires,” said Richard Barnwell, Bat Cave’s 74-year-old fire chief. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

He’s lived in Bat Cave – a settlement of about 200 nestled deep in the hollow beside Chimney Rock and Lure – all his life and has been a firefighter for four decades. Those on the fire line have told him this blaze has a mind of its own.

“They say it is unlike anything they’ve ever seen,” Barnwell said.

A vast pall

Black peaks of the Eastern Continental Divide, huddled in formation at more than 2,000 feet, held a vast smoke cloud Sunday like a soup bowl. Dire air-quality warnings spread from Asheville into South Carolina.

In Bat Cave, it snowed ash. In Saluda, 25 miles to the south, the faithful drove home from church at noon with their headlights on.

In Macon County, near another vast blaze, authorities distributed health masks.

So thick was the gloom shrouding the region that it looked as though winter’s first big snow was about to tumble. But it was just smoke, as every nose in a thousand square miles could tell, and there was no hint of a much-needed soaking in the forecast.

Barnwell, the fire chief, estimated the Broad River, which runs behind his fire station and provides his tankers with water, was two-thirds empty. Great gray bottom rocks, usually invisible beneath the swift flow, basked like hippos in the day’s half light.

Finding firebugs

In all, 12 major fires are at work in North Carolina’s highlands. Carelessness is the cause of some; arson is suspected in others.

“We’ve got some firebugs out there,” said Brian Haines of the N.C. Forest Service.

They’ve caught a few over the years and are baffled by their motives.

“People do things for odd reasons,” he said. “Some want attention. Some have said they just wanted to see fire trucks.”

Authorities haven’t determined what started the blaze imperiling Chimney Rock. But there’s no question it has snuffed the lucrative leaf-peeping season that helps drive the tourism economy.

Sam Freeman, who carves walking sticks from maple, hickory, locust and birch he plucks from the woods and then sells to flatlanders at 10 bucks apiece from the porch of his 132-year-old roadside cabin, says business has dried up.

He’s lived up the crooked road above Bat Cave all his 70 years. Once in his youth, he even got drafted to help fight a wildfire.

“I’ve seen fires on the mountain,” he said, “but I never saw the likes of this.”

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs