Forest fires force hundreds to evacuate in Appalachia, including entire town in NC

LAKE LURE, N.C. -- Dozens of wildfires ravaging forests in Appalachia are prompting mass evacuations -- including an entire town in western North Carolina, a state official said.

The Party Rock Fire, which has consumed about 2,000 acres, was headed toward Lake Lure, a community of about 1,200 people, beside a lake by the same name in Chimney Rock State Park on Saturday, said Brian Haines, spokesman for the North Carolina Forest Service.

"It's headed toward town. They are hoping to stop it before it gets there," Haines said. "The only people there now, I think, are the firefighters."

Authorities earlier evacuated another 127 residences and vacation homes threatened by the fire in the area, about 30 miles southeast of Asheville, Haines said. Authorities are warning people in other rural communities to be ready to flee.

The fire started last Saturday on Party Rock, prompting evacuations there and also around the village of Chimney Rock, WLOS reported.

Party Rock is one of more than 20 fires ongoing in North Carolina, forcing evacuations of more than 200 homes in the Nantahala National Forest, Haines said. Other fires are burning in other states in the drought-stricken region.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday declared a state of emergency in 25 western counties after the fires resulted in evacuations in Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain and Rutherford counties.

The forest fires are forcing the state to close several state parks so that the people who work there can help fight the fires, WTVD reported.

More than 5,000 firefighters and support staff from around the nation are trying to suppress these fires -- which have burned tens of thousands of acres -- in an effort that includes about 40 aircraft, including three large air tankers flying out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the television station reported.

A number of the fires are being investigated as suspected arson, but natural causes and conditions are also responsible for blazes, Haines said.

The humidity, which normally rises at night and helps to suppress the fire until morning, has been low -- and that has meant many of the blazes go unfettered and move more quickly, he said.

"It is just due to the drought, honestly," he said. "The wind is coming in and picking up the fire and running with it at night."

The Rough Ridge Fire, which has consumed more than 13,300 Cohutta Wilderness acres in Fannin County in northeast Georgia, was caused by lighting 28 days ago, said Mary Stuever, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

"The fire is currently burning down toward a couple of rivers and we want to make sure the fire ties in to those rivers," she said. "We're trying to herd the fire."

The Rough Ridge Fire was 20% contained Saturday, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Michelle Burnett said.

Meanwhile authorities evacuated dozens of homes in Rabun County after the Rock Mountain Fire grew to more than 2,600 acres, Burnett said. It was 5% contained Saturday evening, Burnett said.

The "human-caused" fire is under investigation, the Forest Service said.

Rabun County is about 110 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.