Wildfire engulfs homes in the North Carolina mountains, threatens dozens more

A 250-acre brush fire engulfed two homes and led to evacuations in the North Carolina mountains on Sunday, while a much larger but more remote wildfire prompted a Code Red air quality alert, Forest Service officials said.

The rapidly spreading brush fire threatened dozens more homes, officials said.

At 3:50 p.m. Saturday, the N.C. Division of Air Quality upped an air quality warning from Code Orange to Code Red for Cherokee and Henderson counties as the fires raged on.

Code Red means the air is unhealthy for everyone.

“Older adults, children, active people, and those with lung or heart disease may experience more serious health effects,” according to the Code Red warning. “Everyone may experience health effects. Limit prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.”

The warning is in effect through Monday.

Evacuations underway

Evacuations were underway, as another 34 structures remained threatened from the Poplar Drive brush fire in Henderson County, according to an N.C. Forest Service bulletin at 11 a.m. Sunday.

As of 9 a.m., the fire was only 5% contained, officials said.

The Forest Service issued this warning on Facebook:

“With dry conditions and low relative humidity expected to continue over the next several days, the N.C. Forest Service is strongly urging the public to postpone any and all outdoor burning.”

The cause of the fire is unknown, and the investigation continues, officials said.

The fire started in the East Poplar Road and Kyles Creek Road areas of Henderson County, south of Asheville, Saturday afternoon.

Henderson County government officials issued this bulletin on Facebook:

“The public is being encouraged to avoid the areas of Kyles Creek Road, East Poplar Drive, Green Mountain Road, Rhodes Road and any neighborhoods that connect off those roads to allow fire crews to operate safely.”

Meanwhile, parched conditions spread a nearly two-week-old wildfire in Cherokee County, rangers said Saturday.

The Collett Ridge Fire, 4 miles south of the town of Andrews, has grown to 1,335 acres, according to a 10:30 a.m. update Sunday by the U.S. Forest Service.

About 1,700 people live in Andrews, located in a valley in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherokee County town is about 90 miles southwest of Asheville and 210 miles west of Charlotte.

Smoke billows from a wildfire in the North Carolina mountains on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.
Smoke billows from a wildfire in the North Carolina mountains on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

No injuries have been reported in the fires. No one has been evacuated due to the Collett Ridge fire, officials said Sunday.

As huge plumes of smoke from the Collett Ridge fire settled in valleys, “active” children and adults, and people with asthma and other respiratory conditions, should limit outdoor exercise, rangers urged Saturday.

“Strong inversions overnight are expected, causing the smoke to settle in the valleys,” according to the Forest Service update on Facebook.

Firefighters continued controlled-burning operations Saturday afternoon near Junaluska Road. That created more smoke, and visitors were urged to stay away, rangers said.

On Sunday, fire officials said crews were staffing the control effort 24/7.

“Drought conditions continued, and fire activity increased throughout the fire area, resulting in additional growth on all sides of the fire,” according the Sunday morning bulletin. “The fire is mainly burning in remote, back country areas.”

About 95 firefighters are helping battle the fire, first spotted on Oct. 23.

The fire crossed the 25-mile Rim Trail to the south and moved into an area where the U.S. Forest Service conducted a prescribed burn in March.

That slowed the spread of the fire and its intensity, “with the primary fuel being the recent leaf fall,” according to the Forest Service statement on Saturday.

“High Fire Danger” on Sunday

Humidity levels were expected to improve on Sunday, “but High Fire Danger will continue,” the National Weather Service office in Greer, South Carolina, warned on Twitter at 6 p.m. Saturday.

“Follow the advice of local authorities if thinking about burning,” NWS meteorologists urged in the alert. “Be extra careful with grills and firepits.”