Downed power line causes massive forest fire in Polk Co.
POLK COUNTY, TN (WRCB) - Thursday night's wind storm caused a lot of damage around the region. In Polk County, fire officials think trees knocked down a power line and caught fire. Now an intense blaze is spreading in the Ocoee area of the Cherokee National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service says the power line fire is spreading quickly, mainly because of the hot, dry conditions. They estimate it will burn 1,600 acres before they can knock it out.
You can see the smoke for miles. Helicopters are dropping buckets of water as firefighters battle the blaze on foot.
"Actually, the best way to contain this line is to utilize fire against fire. We've got firefighters using drip torches for what we call backfiring," U.S. Forest Service - Ocoee Ranger District's Andy Gaston said.
Right now, the fire has only burned around 200 acres, but it won't stop there because of where it's located and how intense it is, so they're making plans to make sure it stops at 1,600 acres by burning in it from the outside in and ensuring conditions don't allow for it to cross roads.
"With this steep rugged conditions and fraying that we have here, the best control lines we have are existing roads and trails," Gaston said.
This downed power line fire is the latest of several made worse by hot, dry conditions recently, which is unusual for this time of year. Normally, humidity is on their side.
"It's very rare that we have a fire with this intensity, this large in east Tennessee," Gaston said.
It makes for especially dangerous conditions for the 80 firefighters on scene. Some have worked every day for up to 21 days, which is the maximum before a required break.
"Just the heat and low humidity, it's been really tough for the firefighting crews," U.S. Forest Service Firefighter Alex Faught said.
High temperatures, mixed with smoke and fire, plus all the gear they have to wear makes it rough.
"Doesn't necessarily make it very cool for us but it keeps us safe from flames," Faught said.
"It could be several days before we get this fire totally contained and totally under control," Gaston said.
With that timeline, firefighters know safety is key.
"That's one of our biggest issues. Just staying hydrated," Faught said.
As for visitor safety, the Chilhowee Recreation Area, FS Road 77 and all nearby trails are closed. Other recreation areas are open -- including some hiking and biking trails and the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
Firefighters from several agencies, including those from neighboring states, are working together to fight the fire in the Cherokee National Forest.
Again, they say it could be several days before it's under control. They say their biggest hope is for some rain to start falling.