By Charli Kerns
The Nantahala Outdoor Center and other local whitewater outfitters were forced to close Friday morning as forest fires that have been sweeping through western North Carolina for the last month reached the Nantahala National Forest. Area residents, including most of the local guide community and NOC staff had to evacuate their homes.
"I was talking to the founder Payson Kennedy yesterday, and he said this has never happened to the Gorge where the NOC was affected, something new for our 44-year history," NOC President William Irving said.
According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, the Tellico Fire began Nov. 3 and has since burned through 13,676 acres. More than 460 personnel lead by the Forest Service have been working on this fire. Firefighters conducted controlled burns Saturday on the NOC's property and elsewhere nearby to stop the fire from spreading further.
In photos, the controlled burn seems to be threatening the NOC property, but in fact the opposite is true, Irving said. The backfires narrowly prevented the wildfire from damaging the whitewater outfitter's iconic campus on the Nantahala River. "The Forest Service and fire team have done a tremendous job with tactics to ensure that no homes or businesses have been burned during this wildfire," Irving said.
An extreme drought over the last several months pushed North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory to declare a state of emergency Thursday for 25 counties in the western part of the state. The cause of the Tellico Fire and many other nearby fires is believed to be human activity, according to Kent Nelson, a public information officer for the Southern Area Incident Management Team. Officials have not ruled out arson as a potential cause of some fires.
"We are asking people to be vigilant and catch license plate numbers of any suspicious activity," Nelson said.
The fire in the Nantahala Gorge is one of more than 20 fires sweeping through western North Carolina. Other fires are burning in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Other rivers affected include the Cheoah River, an hour west of the Nantahala. Heavy smoke spread throughout the area during the season’s final dam release on the Cheoah two weekends ago.
"Sometimes you couldn't even see the car in front of you," said Melissa McClung, who works guest service at the Tapoco Lodge, a popular hangout spot for paddlers on the Cheoah River. Part of the major road linking the two rivers was closed over the last few days, though McClung said they're hoping to have it re-opened early this week.
The road in the Nantahala Gorge will likely re-open sometime this week, Nelson said, though it's impossible to be certain with fires still burning throughout the region.
"This is a long-term event. Some of us are planning on staying through Thanksgiving," Nelson said.
According to the National Weather Service, no rain is in the forecast.