While most students at West and residents in the area have heard about the wildfires burning in 20 locations across Western North Carolina, two members of West’s staff have been directly involved with fighting the fire at Party Rock near Lake Lure just 25 miles away.
Deputy Mitch Jacobson and English teacher Jason Livingston have been working to ensure the safety of the community during the wildfires.
“We are doing security for the houses that have been evacuated and make sure that the empty houses haven’t been vandalized or burglarized,” Jacobson said. “We make sure that the firemen are safe and that there are no trespassers or people harassing the firemen.”
Livingston has been a volunteer firefighter since he was 15 years old and a paid part-time firefighter for six years. He is an assistant chief at the Mills River Fire Department and a part-time firefighter at the Etowah-Horse Shoe and Dana fire departments.
“My role has been varied, it’s been a lot of assembling crews and getting resources together for crews going down, but several of my colleagues have, in fact, done a lot of building prepping,” Livingston said. “When we prep a house, we’ll try to create as much of a fire barrier around the structure as we can. We remove trees that can potentially catch fire and lead to the house itself burning. If conditions are deteriorating very rapidly, then we also spray a foam coat on structures to try and prevent the fire.”
The Party Rock wildfire currently covers almost 6,000 acres, and according to N.C. Forest Service officials the cost of fighting the wildfire has risen to more than $2.1 million.
“Most of Henderson County’s resources have been going to what’s called the Party Rock fire down in the Lake Lure and Chimney Rock areas,” Livingston said. “There are also units from our county who work part-time with the Forest Service, and they’ve been deployed to Swain, Macon, Clay and Jackson counties. We have Henderson County firefighters who have been deployed all across Western North Carolina, but most of our guys from this area have been responding to the Party Rock fire on a daily basis.”
N.C. Forest Service officials reported that the fire is currently 19 percent contained.
“This will be the Chimney Rock fire’s second week,” Livingston said. “The other fires have been burning for two to three weeks now.”
According to the N.C. Air Quality Forecast Center, several counties are under code red for air quality.
“The smoke has made the air quality just absolutely treacherous,” Livingston said. “People with asthma, COPD and other breathing problems have had a hard time.”
The smoke has been a cause of safety concern for local citizens.
“Residents have made numerous calls, and people have been stopping by the station concerned wondering if something was burning more locally than the Chimney Rock fire because there’s so much smoke in the area,” Livingston said. “It’s accelerated our call volume because people are so afraid. We never discourage people to call 911 because we want to get a head start on any fire that may start in our respective districts.”
Evacuations have affected more than 1,000 people so far.
“It’s a scary thing right now for citizens and firefighters,” Livingston said.
Winds up to 22 miles per hour are predicted for this weekend, conditions that could increase problems for firefighters.
“The days that we’ve had wind have been a blessing for people breathing the smoke, but it’s also a nightmare for firefighters,” Livingston said. “It pushes the fire and the fire will grow at a much more rapid rate as opposed to when there’s little to no wind, so you’re kind of in a catch- 22 there.”
The wind is not the only issue with the weather for the firefighters. The highest chance of rain this week is only 30 percent on Saturday.
“The biggest thing that will help these fires is rain, and there’s none in the extended forecasts,” Livingston said. “It’s been a very tough battle.”
Fighting a wildfire in mountainous terrain makes it more difficult for firefighters to combat and contain the fire.
“The difficult part is that these fires are burning in some of the most rugged and treacherous areas in Western North Carolina, so they’re very hard to contain,” Livingston said. “Other than our being able to save so many houses thus far in the incidents, it’s pretty much worse case scenario as far as the terrain and topography are concerned.”
Because of the current wildfire conditions, a burn ban has been put in place.
“We as firefighters don’t like telling people what they can and can’t do on their property, but we’re begging and pleading at this point to please adhere to those restrictions,” Livingston said. “People don’t understand that we have some dire conditions out there right now, and we’re asking people to please be mindful of their neighbors. We don’t want anymore of these to get out of hand.”
Jacobson said the community is concerned with how long the wildfires could last.
“The best case scenario is that it could be contained by the end of the month,” Jacobson said. “The worst case scenario is it’s going to be a couple months out.”
The loss of the forests to the fire and the costs of the fire suppression have been devastating but the efforts of the community, police officers and firefighters have prevented loss of property and life.
“It’s absolutely devastating to see what the fire has done so far. Lake Lure is a beautiful place and it’s awful to see the woods caught on fire,” Jacobson said. “It’s also very humbling to go down there and see it and these men and women firefighters out there fighting this trying to contain it. It’s something that I personally don’t think I could do and to see them doing it all hours of the day is phenomenal.”
By:Bryn Bowen, Feature Writer