TOWNSEND, Tenn. – Wildfires burning in east Tennessee and Western North Carolina continue to spread, fueled by drought and fire weather, prompting evacuations and school closures this week.
The National Weather Service issued High Wind Warnings for East Tennessee through Tuesday afternoon, including the Smoky Mountains. Winds are forecast between 25 and 40 mph with gusts up to 85 mph in a few locations.
The Black Bear Fire on the northeast side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has consumed more than 1,800 acres, and fire crews have gained 42% containment since the fire started on Nov. 16.
That fire started burning near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line on the north side of Interstate 40. With the location so close to the highway, fire officials are warning drivers to be on the lookout for smoke and possibly rolling debris when driving on I-40.
Wildland firefighters are responding to smaller fires near Townsend and Rich Mountain Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which prompted voluntary evacuations on Monday. The fire was about 7 acres, but voluntary evacuations were ordered due to 60 and 80-mph winds driving fire growth. Residents have since been allowed to return home, but the fire department is asking people to avoid the Rich Mountain Road area to allow for fire crews to move in and out of the area.
The National Park Service closed several campgrounds on Monday out of an abundance of caution, and the Rich Mountain Fire forced Townsend Elementary School to close on Tuesday, according to a school Facebook post.
Crews with the Townsend Area Volunteer Fire Department, National Park Service and Tennessee Department of Forestry are responding to the fires.
Residents told to stay vigilant for wildfire behavior
Wildfires have fed off strong winds and drought conditions, along with ample sources of fuel from fall leaves dropping. Meanwhile, small fires have been easily sparked in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Tennessee's Blount County 911 emergency officials have reported at least four fires were started by lawnmowers going over dry leaves.
"The exhaust on some lawnmowers, especially older models, is located at the front of the mower," Blount County 911 wrote on social media. "When the leaves start piling up at the front of the mower, the exhaust can overheat and cause the leaves to catch on fire. The leaves can also get caught up in the pulley system of a mower which can also cause the leaves to catch on fire."
On Tuesday, strong southeasterly winds are again forecast along with up to 1 inch of rain. The rain will help extinguish some heat sources, according to the Department of Forestry. But a burn ban is in place for 16 counties in Central and East Tennessee and in 30 counties in North Carolina.