Officials with the US Forest Service said the fire in the Cohutta Wilderness continues to grow larger and larger each day. Only 10% is contained and there are over 265 crew members working around the clock to prevent the fire from spreading any further.
The U.S. Forest Service blames a lightning strike for the cause of the fire. Five thousand acres burned in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. “It is a large fire for this area, very complex operation with hand crews and aviation resources working on the fire,” said Public Information Officer Susan Heisey.
The fire sparked in mid-October. For weeks local crews battled the flames, but the fire got too big, too fast. “It's been burning for a while. It has just been within the past week it really grown and the local forest agency determined they weren't able to manage it by themselves and asked us, The Gold Stars, to come assist.”
Thick smoke settles in the Tennessee Valley with a hazy brown smog, as the fire continues to smolder in the national forest. “Folks on the ground everyday monitoring the conditions, keeping lines in check they have established, aviation resources, helicopters.”
Hundred foot cliffs in the rough ridge are major obstacles, it takes firefighters more than an hour to reach the area where the fire is burning. “Very rugged, steep terrain, it is a national forest the area does not have many roads into the wilderness. Very few trails that allows firefighters access to the area.”
Fire restrictions are now in place in the national forest, to try to keep more fires from popping up. While firefighters begin prescribed burns. Carefully controlled fires to improve the forest health. “Remove leaf litter, remove the understory, it just makes the forest healthier. Even though a wildfire caused by lightning started this, it has some major benefits.”
The Cohutta Wilderness is closed to the public, including area campgrounds and hiking trails. All visitors and Forest users are asked to abide by all closure signs posted at entry points, roads and trails. This closure has been put in place due to the increase in fire spread through the Cohutta Wilderness Area and to allow for public and firefighter safety.
In addition, an area on the southeastern edge of the wilderness is closed. This area is bordered on the south and east by FS Road 64, north from Jacks River Fields and east to Watson Gap. This area encompasses the Jacks River Fields Campground, the South Fork Trail, the two to three mile section of the Benton MacKay Trail that overlaps, and the last two miles of the Pinhotti Trail located north of FS Road 64. The length of FS Road 64 between Watson Gap to Potatopatch Mountain along the southern edge of the Cohutta Wilderness is closed. This includes the section of FS Road 64 that was previously closed due to a landslide last winter. Additionally, all roads west of Watson Gap are closed to all traffic except residents; this includes FS Road 126.
Due to high fire danger caused by extreme drought conditions across much of Georgia, Fannin and Gilmer Counties have issued a ban on all outdoor burning until further notice due to the extremely dry conditions and high fire danger. No open burning of any type is being permitted including campfires and fire pits. For more information on the burn ban for Fannin County, contact the Fannin County Emergency Management Agency at 706-632-1958. For more information on the burn ban for Gilmer County, contact the Gilmer County Department of Public Safety at 706-635-1333.