Raging wildfires worsen air quality around Charlotte region

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Thick smoke continues to blanket a wide area of the North Carolina mountains, where uncontrolled wildfires are burning, and firefighters have been working around the clock in a desperate effort to get the flames under control.

Residents gathered at the Enola Fire Department Thursday night to ask questions and hear the latest from officials on the wildfires raging throughout South Mountains State Park, just miles from their homes and families.

The 6,000-acre fire is only 30 percent contained.

"I want every one of you to know that we will be there," Burke County Emergency Management Director Mike Willis told the community.

Officials said they plan to do a little more back burning to keep the fire away from homes north of the park, and that their biggest concern lies in the days ahead with forecasted wind (50 mph gusts) and no rain.

The direction of the fire is one of the biggest questions for many residents, like David Burke.

“We're really concerned, especially with the wind change," Burke said.

Officials believe winds will shift from southwest to northwest in the coming days.

Resident Jeff Morris thanked officials during a prayer vigil, where the community prayed for rain and the safety of those fighting the fire.

“Being out there and watching all of these people risking their lives to save ours and our property,” Morris said.

McCrory: NC wildfires have caused $12 million in damage

Gov. Pat McCrory said Thursday afternoon that the wildfires have caused over $12 million in damage and the cost continues to rise.

He said there is a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of any individuals who contributed to the fires.

"We believe they're man made, but we don't know if they're intentional, I hope it was accidental," McCrory said.

McCrory said the Chestnut Knob fire in Burke County is a major challenge and is 30 percent contained.

"There's some smoke that has made it to the state capitol in Raleigh," McCrory said. "I especially want to thank the volunteers, the people who are feeding the firefighters and provide housing."

CLICK PLAY below to watch McCrory's press conference:

Air quality issues remain a problem for the Charlotte area and burn bans have been put in place across the region.

The Charlotte Fire Department canceled all burning permits and the Mecklenburg County Fire Marshal's Office is prohibiting all outdoor burning, including recreational fires, until further notice.

CLICK HERE: Safety tips on preventing woodland fires

“Our area is in a crisis situation due to lack of rainfall,” CFD officials tweeted. “Potential for a fire in woods, grass and fields is extremely high.”

Several surrounding counties also issued a burn ban.

Wildfires spreading in Burke County

Firefighters met at South Mountains State Park Thursday and were focusing their fight against the fire in five sections, especially the northern and southern tips of the Chestnut Knob fire, where the flames are hottest.

Firefighters are working around the clock, including one who has to worry about his own home. 

Less than a mile from his front door, Enola firefighter Chris Maines could see the Chestnut Knob fire moving closer to his home.

For nearly two weeks, he has been part of the effort to keep the 5,900-acre fire from destroying homes south of Morganton. 

CLICK HERE for the latest on individual wildfires across the South

Channel 9 saw him Thursday working with a chainsaw to clear brush around his home after gathering some belongings in case he and his family have to evacuate.

"We just got the essential stuff, like pictures, our Bibles, a few clothes,” Maines said.

At Maines' fire department, one vehicle after another pulled in Thursday morning with supplies for the firefighters, some of whom are working 12-hour shifts.

More than 200 firefighters are working in bone-dry conditions. It hasn't rained for more than 40 days. 


(View of wildfire smoke from space)

"It affects everyone in the community and you can just feel the love and see all that food in there that people have supplied,” said resident Nancy Reed. “It just means so much to the guys to have the support of the community."

Maines is like many of his fellow firefighters in worrying about those living closest to the fire. He hopes he won't be forced to leave and will be able to continue to help others. 

"If it wasn't for family and friends in this community -- this side of the state -- all the donations and firefighters coming from out west, (we're) all (tremendously) thankful," Maines said.

More than 200 firefighters were fighting the fire from the ground while helicopters made water drops.

Firefighters also started small fires outside houses. Those backfires are meant to protect property by burning the dry leaves and trees that are feeding the fire.

Wildlife officials have also been going door-to-door, warning families and businesses about the danger.

The fire seemed to create its own wind Thursday in the Enola community, south of Morganton, allowing it to spread quickly.

It is now roughly 5,900 acres in size, with more than 200 firefighters working to protect homes, setting back burns in some areas to burn areas ahead of the main fire -- mostly at night.

Fire crews are doing that ahead of a front that is expected this weekend that will increase winds out of the north and northwest.

Channel 9 was with firefighters Thursday as they were briefed, and spoke with one firefighter from Florida who is sacrificing time with his family to help.

"I have a wife and two kids, 4 and 6,” said Joshua Cameron. “I missed my 4-year-old’s birthday two days ago so that was tough, and the holidays (are) coming up, but I'm doing what I can do to provide for the family."

No homes have been lost.

Wildfires impacting Charlotte's air quality

With the fires growing -- and the wind shifting -- smoke continues to linger across the uptown skyline, causing eyes and throats to burn. And while conditions have eased a bit, Charlotte is still not in the clear.

Charlotte’s air quality level was at Code Red on Wednesday but had improved enough Thursday morning to prompt environmental officials to downgrade it to Code Orange, which means it is unhealthy for people more sensitive to air quality -- such as the elderly, young children and those with respiratory issues.

By Friday morning, that level was dropped down to a Code Yellow, but was expected to be raised back to Code Orange by the afternoon.

The main factor when it comes to determining how bad the air quality will be is the wind -- both direction and speed. Channel 9 is forecasting winds from the northeast on Thursday, which will help clear Charlotte of some of the smoke and haze.

But the smoky conditions will still be a major problem west of Charlotte, from Hickory through Shelby, where a Code Red air quality alert remains.

LINK: NC Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources Air Quality report

In the meantime, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials said they are keeping an eye on any air quality warnings and any extra precautions that they need to take. They sent out a notice advising that students be kept inside the building as much as possible.

CMS leaders said they are limiting high school practices to 45 minutes outside. Currently, all Friday night high school games are on.

“Children, older adults and people with heart and lung disease should not engage in prolonged or heavy exertion and everybody else should reduce level of exertion,” said senior air quality control specialist Shelley Lanham.

CLICK HERE for Mecklenburg County real-time air quality information

“For young children, what we're concerned about is the damage that can be caused to the growing lungs,” said Mecklenburg County Health Department medical director Dr. Stephen Keener.

A UNCC professor monitoring the air quality said the Code Red levels that Charlotte experienced on Wednesday are on par with the levels of pollution in mega cities like Beijing -- which means that instead of breathing in hundreds of pollutant particles in each breath, residents are taking in thousands at a time.

"If you're breathing about 10 times more pollution, your body has to deal with it," Brian Magi said.

CLICK HERE to sign up for EPA air quality notifications

Magi, a scientist who is also an assistant professor of earth sciences at UNCC, said that on a typical day in Charlotte, people breathe in roughly 100 particles per breath, but that number was closer to 1,000 on Wednesday.

He calculated that a person walking around Beijing was breathing 1,500 particles per breath.

"The fact that it compares to Beijing is never a good thing," Magi said.

The county is urging people to use an app called AIR NOW, sponsored by the EPA, to check air quality.

The entire region is being affected, with Lincoln and Gaston counties having the highest concern for Code Red levels.

Raging wildfires continue to burn in western North Carolina

While the Chestnut Knob fire in South Mountains State Park continues to burn in Burke County, firefighters are still working about 60 miles west to contain a massive wildfire in Chimney Rock State Park.

As of Friday morning, the Party Rock fire has burned more than 6,700 acres and was only 32 percent contained.

Roughly 400 people who live around Lake Lure have already been evacuated and are still being told that they can't go home.

During a community meeting, fire officials warned those residents that there is still a risk the fire could turn toward their homes as the wind shifts. Some of those evacuees have already been out of their homes for nearly a week.

Hundreds of firefighters have arrived from all parts of the country to help fight the fires, including three men who drove nearly 24 hours from New Mexico to fight the Party Rock fire in the Lake Lure area.

"There was a request for help. We have units available to assist," Edward Nieto said.

PHOTOS: North Carolina raging wildfires

There hasn't been a fire in the Lake Lure area in a long time, so the forest floor is thick with flammable material, and falling autumn leaves are encouraging the flames to spread, said Victoria Tillotson, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Forest Service.

A total of 850 people were fighting the Party Rock blaze.

Randle Montgomery recalled watching television coverage of wildfires in California and considering himself lucky. He never expected a 4,500-acre blaze to threaten Lake Lure, where he works, and Black Mountain, where he's lived for 16 years.

"The way this thing takes off, they'll get it contained, and it just depends on the wind, but it's turned so many times on us," said Montgomery, 47. "And it's got everybody pretty much on edge."

Fire crews said they need items like baby wipes, eye drops, lip balm and bottled water. You can drop off items at the Howard's Creek Fire Department in Lincolnton on N.C. 27 West.

Caldwell County Emergency Services is also collecting donations of supplies for the firefighters battling the South Mountains Fire (Chestnut Knob Fire) in Burke County.

CLICK HERE for the latest on individual wildfires across the South

They will be collecting items from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday at the Caldwell County Health and Human Services Building at 2345 Morganton Boulevard in Lenoir.

Donations will be accepted at the donations trailer set up at the HHS building. Items needed for donation are:

  • Beef Jerky
  • Wool Caps/Toboggans
  • Bandanas
  • Energy Bars
  • Bottled Water (16 oz)
  • Gatorade (12 or 16 oz)
  • Socks, medium to large size work or boot socks
  • Travel Size Hand Wipes
  • Travel Size Hand Lotion
  • Travel Size Gold Bond Foot Powder
  • Work Gloves
  • Saline Eye Drops
  • Lip Balm

     

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