‘California wildfires in North Carolina’: Thousands forced to evacuate as burning continues

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RUTHERFORD COUNTY, N.C. -- Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes in western North Carolina due to over 20 wildfires; eight of which have been deemed major.

“We have California wildfires in North Carolina,” said Gov. Pat McCrory at a press conference in Lake Lure on Monday.

McCrory said the Party Rock Fire, located near the Lake Lure area of Rutherford County, has been deemed the number two priority fire in the nation. As of Monday afternoon, about 3,400 acres have burned as a result.

“I had about an hour to decide what to pack and what to maybe let burn,” said April Sottile, who was told to evacuate her home and business. “And it’s surreal, walking around your house room to room, ‘OK, well I need that picture,’ because it’s my mom and dad’s picture.”

“I didn’t know what I was going to come back to, if anything,” said Bob Wald, a Chimney Rock homeowner. “We had to think fast and grab what we could.”

Wald and his wife started by getting their pets to safety as fire approached their log cabin.

“Cremated remains of family members, they had to evacuate, my mom and my aunt evacuated with us, not the same way we did but they came with us,” he said. “You take silly things sometimes. You take mementos, you take good luck charms.”

Firefighters from all over North Carolina, and even as far as Alaska, have responded to the fires.

“The sky was red, the sirens were going off, the cars were flashing lights all over the place,” Sottile detailed.

Although the fire continues to burn, firefighters have managed to save every structure threatened by the Party Rock Fire.

“I have a cement wall around my house and they let it burn down to the wall. They knew what they were doing. They’re brilliant,” Sottile said. “I heard my son say to one of the firefighters, ‘Thank you for saving my home,’ and that just got to me.”

Wald, a firefighter himself, watched as firefighters battled fire coming toward his home from three directions.

“Once they start doing the back burn, it was kind of frightening, because you see your house almost engulfed in tremendous flames as they do the back burn. But they were in charge, they knew what they were doing, they did it well,” he said. “After that, it was smiles.”

McCrory told reporters the fires have the potential to burn until March. He said he will be calling a special session in regards to Hurricane Matthew and may have to add wildfire relief to the equation.

“All we need is a bad wind going the other way and we’re right back where we started from,” Sottile. “The fire is not out.”

It is believed that some of the fires were started by humans, McCrory said. However, investigators have not been able to narrow down their origins further. He encouraged anyone who sees someone starting a fire under the current conditions to report it as quickly as possible.