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Smoke Hole fire big, but not biggest

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Smoke Hole Fire near Seneca Rocks burned through 1,611 acres of oak-hickory forest before an army of 190 firefighters brought it under control earlier this week, making it the largest forest fire to occur on the Monongahela National Forest in more than 60 years.

But compared with other West Virginia wildfires that have taken place since the state Division of Forestry began keeping detailed records in 1939, the Pendleton County fire was by no means the hottest spark in the state's woodland tinderbox. A number of blazes have surpassed the Smoke Hole Fire in terms of size and severity over the years, with most of them occurring on privately owned land in the state's fire-prone southern mountains.

On Thursday, the Smoke Hole Fire was considered 80 percent contained, with a small incident team left at the site to guard against possible flare-ups. Firefighters were also beginning to re-seed fire lines with hardwoods, according to Robert Beanblossom, a public information officer for the inter-agency firefighting team that subdued the blaze.

The Smoke Hole Fire, which broke out on Nov. 10, involved the efforts of U.S. Forest Service firefighters from 18 states, personnel from the state Division of Forestry, and firemen from volunteer fire departments in Franklin, Seneca Rocks, Upper Tract, Moorefield and Petersburg. Six fire engines, two bulldozers and a helicopter equipped with a water-dropping bucket were used in the fire suppression effort. 

  While the Smoke Hole Fire was large and significant, it pales in comparison with other fires that have blazed through the state's forests over the years.

In the fall of 1987, a 19,560-acre wildfire swept through Raleigh County, while another forest fire sent 15,192 acres of Boone County woodlands up in smoke, according to West Virginia Division of Forestry records. In 1987, which proved to be the state's second-worst year on record for forest fires, 416,687 acres -- or more than 650 square miles -- were damaged statewide during the fall fire season alone.

During November of 1987, a wildfire charred more than 6,000 acres in northern Kanawha County near the Clay County line, while smaller blazes worked their way through tinder-dry woods in Kanawha State Forest, and in the Campbells Creek, Brounland and Sissonville areas. KRT buses were used to shuttle volunteer firefighters from fire to fire, according to Gazette accounts of the fires.

Smoke in Charleston was so thick in early November of 1987 that particulate matter in the air was deemed to be 12 times the acceptable level for public health, according to the state Air Pollution Control Commission. The heavy smoke produced numerous respiratory complaints and prompted the regional affiliate of the American Lung Association to urge Charleston area joggers and seniors to stay off the streets until the air cleared.

Gov. Arch Moore ordered state forests, parks and wildlife management areas in 13 southern counties closed to the public for safety and fire prevention purposes.

But the state's worst forest fire to occur since the West Virginia Division of Forestry began keeping wildfire statistics took place in 1952, when 638,000 acres, or about 997 square miles, were charred. Most of the damage happened during a three-week stretch from mid-October to early November.

According to a 2009 Goldenseal magazine article by Beanblossom, West Virginia experienced its third-driest year on record in 1952. By the official start of the fall fire season on Oct. 15, new fires were breaking out daily. On Oct. 18 -- the first day of squirrel season -- 52 new fires were reported, and by Oct. 23, more than 200 fires were blazing across the state.

Personnel from the state Conservation Commission, the Division of Highways and the West Virginia National Guard were mobilized to help Division of Forestry firefighters battle the 1952 wildfires. Coal companies and sawmills released workers to join in the fight. By Oct. 26, more than 5,000 men were fighting the fires.

Smoke from the fires was thick enough to cancel commercial air flights in Charleston and Huntington, and drifted eastward for hundreds of miles, reaching New York City and much of the Eastern Seaboard. The arrival of significant rainfall and snow brought an end to the fire season during the first week of November.

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 rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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