Southerners told to wear masks outdoors as wildfires rage

Wildfires near the Georgia-North Carolina line are spewing smoking so thick that residents are being urged to wear special masks if they must do outdoor activities.

The flames many of them suspected arsons have prompted evacuations in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee in recent days.

The largest of dozens of ongoing wildfires in the South has now burned 13,300 acres, more than a third of the vast Cohutta Wilderness area, in the north Georgia mountains just south of the Tennessee line.

Fire managers said Saturday that the blaze, believed to have ignited from a lightning ten-strike in mid-October, was merely 20 percent contained.

In Macon County, North Carolina, special health masks were being made available Saturday. Emergency Management Director Warren Cabe said they’re distributing N95-rated masks as regular surgical masks don’t provide adequate protection from smoking particles.

And yet, the drifting smoking that prompted air quality authorities to declare a Code Orange on Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, cleared enough for Saturday’s Charlotte Marathon to be running as planned under crisp blue skies.

Kristen Butterfield, who works at a local store in Chimney Rock, North Carolina told the Asheville Citizen-Times that around noon Friday authorities began ordering people to evacuate. Then she saw a structure catch fire.

“We had to get out, ” she said. “They told us at midday and “were in” out by 2 p.m. at the most recent. We took everything we could.”

Her friend Andre Whilden, who lives behind Chimney Rock village, said she and her husband hardly got any notice.

“We got everything packed that we could, ” she said, which included seven animals.

Whilden said on Wednesday she saw one firetruck after another speed past her house and she knew the flame was getting worse.

“I didn’t expect to be evacuated, ” she said. “I expected it to stay up on the mountain, but on Wednesday I knew something wasn’t right so I went down to the visitor’s center, appeared to my left and the whole mountain was on fire.”

Smoke has determined over Clayton, Georgia and surrounding Rabun County, where flames including a 2,000 -acre blaze has forced people from their homes. That flame is a suspected arson blaze, and the sheriff has asked residents to be on the lookout for a dark blue SUV seen in the area where the flame started on Wednesday.

In Tennessee, 42 of the 58 active wildfires in the state are suspected arsons or about 72 percent of them the Tennessee Department of Agriculture reported Saturday in its wildfire situation update.

In North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest, more than 20 wildfires have burned more than 17,000 acres and all of them are “being investigated for suspected arson, ” federal forestry officials have said.

The federal government has approved a request for money to fight the flames in western North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory said. A grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will now pay 75 percent of the emergency protective measures taken in fighting the flames, McCrory said in a news release Saturday.

In South Carolina, the Easley Fire Department is asking residents to donate water, Gatorade and other drinks to help firefighters combating a wildfire on Pinnacle Mountain.

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