Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: The lethal forest fire that destroyed the town of Lahaina in Hawaii is said to have been made possible by unusually dry weather, non-native grasses extending their territory and high winds from a hurricane. Unusually dry weather, kindling and high winds could converge into such a nightmare in our region. What is being done to prevent such a natural disaster here, both in the city of Asheville and its environs? Is our newly crowned Urban Forester doing anything?
My answer: I have crowned myself an “Urban Beerester.” It requires a lot of research. Plus, beer could theoretically be useful in extinguishing a blaze.
Real answer: As timing would have it, Buncombe County recently took some action in this regard.
“Fire prevention is exactly why we updated our County Fire Prevention and Protection Ordinance on Aug. 1, especially focused on open burning,” Buncombe County spokesperson Lillian Govus said via email. “While there are no new bans on burning included in it, residents must monitor their burns at home, and public bonfires must have fire presence available.”
Govus pointed out that it’s illegal to burn any “non-natural substance.” In other words, “if it doesn’t grow, don’t burn it,” she said.
The fire in Maui appears to have been started by a downed power line that ignited a blaze that was then driven by unusually high winds. We have been known to have dry conditions around here, often in late summer or early fall and sometimes in early spring, and high winds occur, too.
“When conditions are ripe for wildfires, our fire marshal may announce a burn ban,” Govus said. “These occur most often when low humidity, dry conditions, and gusty winds exist.”
The North Carolina Forest Service also has authority to issue a burn ban, she noted.
“Of note to your reader’s question, after the 2016 fall fire season in Buncombe County and most notably the ‘Party Rock Fire,’ fire department response plans were updated by the fire chiefs in Buncombe County,” Govus said. “This updated plan dispatches three to four departments simultaneously on reported wildfires on ‘High Fire Danger Forecast Days.’ This is a preventative measure to keep fires smaller and quicker to contain.”
As WLOS-News 13 previously reported, the Party Rock Fire of November 2016 “burned more than 7,000 acres in and around Lake Lure, Chimney Rock and Bat Cave.” A teenager was convicted of starting the fire, which mostly damaged areas in Rutherford County, adjoining Buncombe.
That same month, the mountains of east Tennessee also suffered severe forest fires. WLOS-News 13 also covered these fires, noting, “extreme drought conditions and wind gusts in excess of 50 mph fanned the flames of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Embers were carried miles north as the fire exploded in size and overtook the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
“The blaze killed 14 people and destroyed more than 2,000 structures in the deadliest wildfire in the Eastern United States since 1947,” WLOS reported.
Govus noted that the Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency can also issue burn bans.
“These occur when air quality levels are forecasted to be code orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups) and above, to reduce pollution, and to minimize impacts on public health,” Govus said. “The Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency updates their website each day with that information and also uses Twitter/X to communicate that daily.”
Govus also reminded residents to sign up for emergency alerts through the county.
“In the event of a situation like Gatlinburg or the Party Rock fire, that is one of our fastest ways to communicate to residents about threats to public safety,” she said. “People can sign up by texting BCAlert to 99411 or go to www.buncombecounty.org/codered”
Kelley Klope, spokesperson for the Asheville Fire Department, said the city has plans in place as well.
“AFD has response plans to address many situations, including wildland fires, which can also request aid from the county and state resources if necessary,” Klope said via email. “Unlike the county, the city does not allow open burning in the city limits.”
Recreational fires, such as an outside campfire, are allowed with restrictions on size and distance from a structure. They can burn only wood.
“These restrictions are all to prevent the fire from spreading and to keep smoke at a minimum so as to not be disrespectful to neighbors,” Klope said.
The department also has inspectors who check in and around buildings to ensure compliance with the fire code. The city has a fire and life safety educator who educates people on fire prevention, too.
Further, the AFD has a division chief over Emergency Management who reviews and updates our emergency action plans.
“AFD has built many relationships and created partnerships with other agencies and organizations, including the North Carolina Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service,” Klope said. “These relationships allow for quick and coordinated response if and when needed.”
Asheville also uses an emergency alert system called AVL Alert. You can sign up by visiting either the city’s website or the Asheville Fire Department’s website, or by going here.
The North Carolina Forest Service has a fire prevention page, which states the service has “the responsibility of protecting state and privately owned forest land from wildfires.
“The Fire Control program is managed on a cooperative basis with all 100 counties. Emphasis in the program include fire prevention efforts; preparedness activities (including training of agency and non-agency personnel,; mitigation, aggressive suppression efforts on all wildfires, and law enforcement follow-up.”
The forest service also has tools and equipment in place to manage prescribed fire, and it “aggressively” suppresses wildfires across the state, the website states. County forest rangers coordinate the use of hand crews, fire engines, bulldozers, tractor-plows, aircraft, helicopters, pumps and other resources.
“The agency has an extensive training program in forest fire protection, is National Incident Management System (NIMS) compliant, and is designated by the state as an emergency response agency,” the website says. It compares maintaining a proficient forest fire control organization to maintaining a well trained army.
“New personnel are constantly being trained to preserve capabilities,” the Forest Service states. “Veteran firefighters regularly undergo refresher training in suppression tactics, strategy, organization and management.”
And, drum roll here, the City of Asheville’s urban forester, Keith Aitken, also responded through the city’s communications department. Aitken noted Asheville has “an abundance of state, federal, and local resources at our disposal.
“I feel confident that a coordinated approach from these agencies would minimize loss,” Aitken said. “As we develop the urban forest master plan for Asheville, wildfire preparedness will be near the top of the list.”
Aitken also pointed out that fall wildfire season is approaching.
“Mid-October through mid-December conditions are much drier, and folks can become careless with the burning of yard waste, which is not allowed within the city limits,” Aitken said. “But fire sees no boundary, with the right conditions and wind, the risk is elevated.”
Question: In a recent Answer Man column, Asheville Tourists Owner Brian DeWine said, “We will break ground on the McCormick Field Centennial Restoration & Capital Improvements project in September of 2024,” after the end of the 2024 season. “The plan is for the project to be completed by Opening Day 2026.” In other words, no truth to the rumor that the Tourists will not play at home in 2024. But did you ask about the possibility that the Tourists will play all their games on the road during the 2025 season?
My answer: Sorry, but that reader did not pay the “more than one question in a question” fee.
Real answer: I did follow up with DeWine on this issue.
“As we have just restarted the design phase, we do not have an exact timeline yet,” DeWine said. “It is our plan to not miss any games.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at email@example.com or 828-337-0941. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.