FAYETTEVILLE — Firefighters have almost gotten a handle on a wildfire that has scorched 130 acres of land on the New River Gorge National River.
Park ranger Leah Perkowski-Sisk said the fire had been about 75 percent contained by Wednesday evening. She said the quick progress can be attributed to damp weather Tuesday and the work of local and out-of-state firefighting crews.
“They are working toward 100 percent,” Perkowski-Sisk said. “I don’t know that they will actually say that until tomorrow morning, but they are pretty close.”
The fire began on Easter Sunday. Witnesses say flames shot as high as 20 feet that night, working their way around the Diamond Point area on the east side near the top of the gorge, all the way to the bottom. Perkowski-Sisk said the National Forest Service “has ascertained that it was human-caused,” though the investigation is ongoing.
By Wednesday afternoon, only a faint smell of smoke lingered. No signs of the fire could be seen from the New River Gorge Bridge; a small area around the bend upstream still billowed some smoke, but there were no apparent flames.
Locally, firefighters with the Mount Hope, Fayetteville, Nuttall and Ansted fire departments assisted early on. Now, 20 firefighters from the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew, a 20-person U.S. Forest Service firefighting team based out of Wilmington, Ill., and seven firefighters from the National Park Service’s Virginia-based Cumberland Gap Wildland Fire Module have taken the lead in the attempt to contain the blaze.
Mark Hughes, a lieutenant with the Mount Hope Volunteer Fire Department, said his firefighters worked with the Midewin Hotshots on Tuesday to contain the fire after it jumped the rock face and out of the gorge for a short time.
“The Hotshot crew went down the northern part of the river bank and cut fire lines down the back part of the fire,” Hughes said. “We were on top of the mountain where it jumped up to Diamond Point and we got that knocked out and taken care of. Pretty much we got the fire burnt back on itself and it put itself out.”
Fire lines are areas cleared out with heavy equipment or simply leaf-blowers to keep flames from crossing over and burning more forest.
Perkowski-Sisk said the spot fire that jumped to the top of the gorge was quickly extinguished, adding that the rocky edge atop the gorge served as a natural barrier that confined the flames to the park.
Hughes said the Midewin Hotshot crew used a technique called back burning — setting an intentional blaze at the fire line that burns back toward the main fire, taking away its fuel and halting its advance.
On Wednesday, the two firefighting crews focused on suppressing any hot spots and getting the area back in shape for eventual re-opening to the public. The Endless Wall Trail is closed as the firefighters continue to work.
“They’re going through and assessing some of the trees and cutting down some of the hazardous trees with the anticipation of being able to open the trail,” Perkowski-Sisk said. “They won’t do that until the fire is completely out, and we’re hoping that maybe in the next several days, but we certainly can’t guarantee that. Right now, that area is closed.”
Citing the danger of fighting forest fires, Perkowski-Sisk said the Midewin and Cumberland Gap crews are a valuable asset to the National Park Service because they are specifically trained to do just that.
“With a Hotshot crew, (fire) is their primary job,” Perkowski-Sisk said. “They will travel all over the United States working fires. They’re specially trained with fire knowledge and they’re more physically fit, too. Those guys see more fire in a year than most of us will see in our career.”
Perkowski-Sisk said there were 151 fires within the New River Gorge National River between 1990 and 2012. She said most of the fires are small and may happen in more remote areas of the park. This week’s fire has grabbed more attention than others because it occurred in a high-profile area seen by gorge hikers, whitewater rafters and motorists on the New River Gorge Bridge.
She said the last significant fire occurred in 2001, when roughly 527 acres of park land burned.
Perkowski-Sisk urged park visitors to exercise caution when using campfires or open flames, especially during times of high fire danger.
“When folks are out enjoying the park, particularly during this dry weather, please be mindful of what you’re doing; particularly with cigarettes — make sure they’re extinguished,” Perkowski-Sisk said. “Ideally, we would like to have folks follow the ‘leave no trace’ practice; if you pack it in, you pack it out. If you do see any fires or suspicious activity, give us a call.”
Perkowski-Sisk said visitors will see “very little impact” once the fire is completely extinguished and the Endless Wall Trail is reopened.
Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-1796 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/amtino.