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Burn bans lift and wildfires wind down following rain

Working through Thanksgiving, firefighters battling the Black Bear Fire  eat their holiday meal on the job. U.S. Forest Service photo Working through Thanksgiving, firefighters battling the Black Bear Fire eat their holiday meal on the job. U.S. Forest Service photo

Burn bans have been lifted and wildfires contained after steady rains Tuesday, Nov. 21, put a pause in a relentless drought that has been growing since an abnormally dry weather pattern emerged in September. 

The N.C. Forest Service lifted its ban on 30 western counties Wednesday, Nov. 22, prompting numerous other agencies to lift similar bans of their own. Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties, which had all implemented local bans to complement the state ban, also lifted their burn bans Nov. 22, as did the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, where backcountry campfires had been prohibited.

However, fire danger is not merely a thing of the past. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, campfires are still banned throughout the park, and a ban on backcountry campfires remains in effect for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The most recent drought map, based on data through 8 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21, showed worsened conditions compared to the previous week, but those categorizations excluded much of the precipitation that came with last week’s rain, just after the data cutoff. Currently, 13 western counties are in extreme drought — up from nine in the previous map — with the list now including Burke, Jackson, Lincoln, Swain, Cherokee, Clay, Cleveland, Graham, Henderson, Macon, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania counties. Meanwhile, 40 counties, including Haywood and Buncombe, are in severe drought and 27 are in moderate drought. An additional 16 counties are abnormally dry.

While last week’s rain helped halt the drought’s progression, it didn’t do much to beat it back. “Typically, rain for this time a year is about an inch a week,” said Klaus Albertin, chair of Drought Management Advisory Council. “If we get an inch and a half, it could help, but may not improve conditions dramatically.”

According to data from the National Weather Service, Cullowhee received 0.91 inches of rain last week, Franklin 1.05 inches, Oconaluftee 1 inch and Asheville 0.78 inches — substantial, but not enough to reverse the drought. So far this November, Cullowhee has received only 1.22 inches of its normal 3.73 inches, Franklin 1.34 of its normal 3.71 inches, Asheville 0.93 of its normal 3.33 inches and Oconaluftee 1.4 of its normal 3.73 inches.

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The most recent drought map, based on data gathered through 8 a.m. Nov. 21, shows worsening drought conditions in the state. U.S. Drought Monitor map

The deficits worsen substantially when looking at total rainfall since the start of September. The Pigeon, Swannanoa and Lumber rivers all hit record low monthly streamflow levels last week.

This means that a return to dry conditions could cause fire season to resume. Adrianne Rubiaco, fire public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, termed last week’s rain a “slowing event” rather than a “season-ending event.”

Forecasters hope to see the drought reverse soon, with the incoming El Niño weather pattern likely to bring a wet winter. However, no big impacts are expected until January, Albertin said. The rain didn’t end the drought, but it was certainly enough to help crews contain the thousands of acres of wildfire that were burning before it came. The U.S. Forest Service gave its last update for the Collett Ridge Fire in Cherokee County and the Black Bear Fire in Haywood County on Nov. 22, at which time the Collett Ridge Fire was 100% contained at 5,505 acres and the Black Bear Fire was 79% contained at 1,888 acres.

Nevertheless, more than 100 firefighters remained on the scene Thanksgiving Day, spending a day traditionally reserved for family, food and football working to ensure the Black Bear Fire remained contained.

“We know it can be difficult to be away from loved ones during the holidays,” read a Facebook post from the U.S. Forest Service. “We hope you know how grateful we, on the Pisgah National Forest, and our communities are for your hard work and dedication.”

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