The worst fire ever to occur on the Monongahela National Forest also occurred in 1952, when a fire started by a farmer attempting to burn fallen timber to clear out a pasture north of Onego in Pendleton County escaped into federal land near the head of Roaring Run.
That blaze, known as the Long Run Fire, burned for nearly two months, scorching 2,600 acres of forest, before it was extinguished by December snows.
From 1900 to 1908 -- the years leading up to the creation of the West Virginia Division of Forestry -- an estimated 1.7 million acres of forest burned statewide.
In recent years, damage from wildfires has been much less severe than in decades past.
Since 2000, there have been four years in which fewer than 10,000 acres of woodland burned in a state containing 12 million acres of forest. This millennium's biggest year for West Virginia forest fires was 2001, when 887 fires burned 86,465 acres. So far this year, as the fire season nears its end, wildfires have charred about 10,000 acres of West Virginia woodlands.
"We've been experiencing some very average fire seasons recently," Beanblossom said. But that situation could change dramatically when another drought cycle occurs, he said.
Fires in the hardwood forests of the east are usually surface fires that burn through leaf litter, brush and small trees, seldom reaching the intensity of "stand-replacing" wildfires more common in the west, in which all vegetation in the path of a blaze is killed outright.
"There have been some stand-replacing fires in West Virginia, but what more typically happens here is that fires scorch bark at the base of a tree, allowing disease and insects to enter and eventually destroy it," Beanblossom said.
While lightning sparks many western fires, human activity is to blame for virtually all of West Virginia's wildfires, according to the Division of Forestry. About 75 percent of the state's fires are caused by either arson or debris fires that burn out of control. Equipment and machinery account for another 13 percent of the state's wildfires while escaped campfires or carelessly discarded cigarettes make up another 4 percent -- the same amount caused by children playing with fire. Lightning can be blamed for only about 1 percent of West Virginia's wildfires.
An emergency closure order that prohibits public access to about 7,600 acres of forest surrounding the Smoke Hole Fire was being evaluated on Thursday for possible lifting.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.