Outdoor burning permits suspended; crews battle wildfires

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   The Tennessee Department of Agriculture Forestry Division has suspended the issuance of outdoor burning permits in the Greeneville District due to dry weather conditions.
   "The heavy leaf fall of the past few days coupled with the current drought and brisk winds make for dangerous outdoor burning conditions," said John Henderson, fire prevention forester. "A lot of our wildfires start from escaped debris burns."
   Henderson said the suspension is temporary and is not a ban.
   "A 'ban' on outdoor burning can only be declared by the governor and usually involves several counties or the whole state," he said. "Our suspension of permits is merely a temporary measure to address the fire danger situation in this district."
   The Greeneville District includes: Carter, Johnson, Unicoi, Washington, Sullivan, Greene, Hawkins, Hamblen, Jefferson, Hancock, Cocke and Grainger counties.
   Guy Street, district fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said that about 20 acres had burned in the Piercetown area of Butler and another 5 to 6 acres in the Poga Community on Wednesday and Thursday.
   "At the moment we have one in Greene County and we're mopping up the one in Butler," he said. "There were some houses fairly close to that one, but so far everything's good. We've kept it out of the houses."
   Elk Mills Volunteer Fire Department responded to the fire in the Poga area and "did most of the work on that one," Street said. "We went up to it and by the time we got there the fire department pretty well had it under control, so we went back to Piercetown."
   Street said the forest service has one 20-person crew stationed at Unicoi -- the Cherokee Hot Shots -- "and we have another crew from out of region that is stationed in Greeneville. They're responding to the fire in Greene County right now at Round Knob," he said Thursday afternoon.
   "The Cherokee Hot Shots are employed by the forest service. Their sole job is to do fires. They started this past June and have been on Western details in Washington, Arizona, and Nevada through the past summer. Now we have them back home to help with fires here," he said.
   Street cautioned the public to be very careful with fire during this dry period.
   "Last week we got a very, very light shower. It didn't even register on the rain gauges. By noon the next day, that was all gone. It's been pretty dry here for a few weeks now," he said.
   Hunters are advised to field strip their cigarettes, rather than throwing them on the ground to burn out.
   Street said the largest fire in the area, which burned about 80 acres, occurred last week in a remote area just south of Erwin. Arson is suspected in the three Upper East Tennessee fires.
   The fire season usually subsides around mid-December, according to Street.
   "Until then, we'll probably be pretty busy," he said.