It is believed that the fire was set accidentally, most likely as a result of someone discarding a still burning cigarette.
“I’m sure that person who flicked their cigarette, I’m hoping they’d be horrified to know what happened,” said Susan Sachs, education coordinator at Purchase Knob.
Forest Service workers noticed the fire from a lookout tower at Chambers Mountain, and arrived on scene with only about four acres involved. Firefighters were able to use the gravel roads that surround the Purchase Knob hillside to contain the fire, said Mike Taylor, GSMNP Fire Management Officer.
The fire did not damage the Purchase Knob research facility, though it did destroy the satellite system and power lines that were located in the surrounding field. No one was at the facility at the time of the fire. The facility hosts scientists who have permits to study in the park, offering residential space, as well as a laboratory and meeting room. The facility also conducts programs for middle, high school and college age students.
Park officials had cancelled a prescribed burn scheduled for the same day as the Purchase Knob fire that was to be held on Wash Ridge in Cataloochee. However, conditions were too good for a fire — dry, warm and windy, Taylor said.
“Those are the things that will contribute to drying out your fuel bed,” Taylor said.
Such conditions have prompted fire activity not often seen in the region, Taylor said. A March 1 fire on Cove Mountain in Tennessee consumed six rental cabins as a result of the fire behavior and their location on the hillside.
The Purchase Knob fire is one of three wildfires in the GSMNP this spring, Taylor said. Another fire was reported in the Smokemont area of the park on March 3. High winds and steep terrain prevented a full size-up of the fire until the following day. Snowfall damped the fire, which has been roughly mapped to 140 acres.
Predicted weather for the remainder of this week is for dry conditions, but without the extreme winds seen last week. Both North Carolina and Tennessee residents who are planning to burn debris must receive a burn permit, and should keep an eye on conditions as weather can quickly change.
“Folks just need to be careful with fire,” Taylor said.
Currently there are no limitations on campfires in the Park, and neither North Carolina nor Tennessee is considering implementing restrictions, Taylor said.