Written by: Clarke Morrison
MORGANTON Firefighters are continuing Friday to battle a wildfire in the Linville Gorge Wilderness, and officials said it will take days to put it out.
This morning the fire covered an estimated 1,800 acres, said Deborah Walker, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. The blaze is about 40 percent contained, she said.
"A lot of that has to do with the burnout operations," Walker said.
Firefighters have been burning areas between their containment lines and the active fire to try to keep the fire inside those lines.
Walker said more than 100 firefighters are on the scene today. The Forest Service brought in a "hot shot" crew from Tennessee specially trained to work in remote, rugged areas, she said.
Winds will be light today, which should help in containment efforts, but Walker said it will will take several days to put the blaze completely out.
"There's a good chance of rain late Sunday and early Monday, so that should help," she said.
Linville Gorge is north and west of Morganton in the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. The fire is around Table Rock in Burke County.
Westerly winds pushed the fire to the east on Thursday, Walker said.
State air quality officials issued an advisory for air pollution from the fire. The advisory covers McDowell, Burke and Caldwell counties.
Smoke particles can be harmful to breath and contribute to haze. It can aggravate symptoms in people with respiratory problems and irritate lungs in healthy individuals. People with chronic lung ailments and children should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activity.
Walker said crews spent much of the day Wednesday cutting containment lines with plans to light backfires.
"What the plan is today (Thursday) is we're going to use our crews and our helicopters to fire out the area from the line to the active fire," she said. "It removes the fuel between the containment lines and the fire.
"That stops the fire's progression and allows resources to get in and take care of any hot spot areas and do so in a safe manner. Today's operation will be focused on the burnout. Folks will see a lot more smoke in the air today."
Ten trails in the area were closed along with the Table Rock Picnic Area, according to Donald Simon, a public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service. "Table Rock is completely closed," he said.
Simon said officials don't recommend visitors try to access the area.
"The trails that are still open are in the north end of Linville Gorge, and it's very smoky up there right now," he said.
Table Rock is a popular area for rock climbing, hiking and other activities.
Smoke from the fire has been moving to the north and east, affecting smaller communities such as Jonas Ridge and Pineola.
Officials said communities around the fire will continue to see smoke through the weekend.
"Winds from the south will push the smoke to northern communities during the day and will settle into the canyons at night," according to an update from the Forest Service.
Smoke from the fire is visible from two overlooks in Lake James State Park, park superintendent Nora Coffey said.
Walker said an Outward Bound facility just northeast of the fire, which is being used as a command center, doesn't appear to be in danger after crews conducted a fuel reduction operation around the buildings.
"No other structures are threatened," she said.
Forest Service engines and the Oak Hill Volunteer Fire Department were standing by at the Outward Bound complex "as protection resources in case the fire should cross containment lines surrounding the area," according to the Forest Service update.
Rose Creek Road, Rich Cove Road, Table Rock Road and Back-Irish Creek Road all Forest Service roads in the area were closed, according to Simon.
No injuries have been reported. The cause of the fire, which was discovered Tuesday, is under investigation.
Walker said anyone who was in the Table Rock picnic area Monday and saw anything suspicious should contact the Grandfather Ranger District office at 652-2144.
Linville Gorge was the site of another major fire that burned 5,400 acres in 2007.