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Slow Blazes Eat Through the South

Weather: Officials say an unseasonably warm and dry spell has given rise to the region's worst forest fire season in 30 years.


BEAVER, Ky. — Brenda Hamilton looks out at the smoky woods every night and prays her little hamlet doesn't go the way of Pickle Bean Holler.

Last week, an out-of-control forest fire, most likely set by arsonists, ate up 60 acres of woods in that distinctively named community in eastern Kentucky.

As she put her son to bed Thursday, Hamilton, who lives a couple of miles down the road, watched a line of fire inch down the hill, glowing like a bright orange ribbon of lava.

"It's kind of scary," she said. "The fire's right here."

It's been the South's worst fire season in decades, with hundreds of wildfires this fall creeping across Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. Many were set by arsonists, authorities said, and 14 people, most of them teenage boys, have been arrested.

In eastern Kentucky, fires have blackened 160,000 acres and laid a layer of smoke and ash so thick it's causing cars to crash, schools to close and several people to check into hospitals with breathing problems.

"You just open your door and cough your head off," said Lora Blackburn, who also lives in Beaver.

The casualty list is growing, with a firefighter killed by a blaze in Tennessee and a 30-year-old firefighter dispatched from Northern California seriously injured in Big Creek, Ky.

A family of five died in a house fire in eastern Kentucky on Monday. They may not have gotten out in time, fire officials said, because the area was so smoky that they may have thought the fire was coming from the woods.

The spreading fires don't call to mind a raging inferno or 20-foot walls of flame found in the West.

These Appalachian mountain fires burn slowly and deliberately, crawling along the forest floor and nibbling at the base of trees. The forests here are full of hickory, oak and hemlock--hardwoods more resistant to flames than highly combustible pines and scrub brush.

On a recent night, as a wildfire moved unhurried across a hillside, the forest sounded like a fireplace, with sticks crackling and popping and puffs of sparks bursting in the frosty mountain air.

Every year, the South experiences forest fires, but authorities say this year is the worst in 30 years because of a wave of arsons and unseasonably warm and dry weather. Eastern Kentucky averages 11.6 inches of rain between Aug. 12 and now. So far it's received only 3.23 inches.

It's the same unseasonably dry situation in most other Southern states, and a good, hard rain isn't expected until after Thanksgiving.

Enter teenage boys, with lighters in their hands and little to do in one of the poorest, most idle parts of America.

Authorities say more than 80% of these Southern fires were started intentionally, probably as pranks. On a recent day, more than 50 separate fires were burning in Eastern Kentucky alone.

"I guess they get their jollies out of this," said Sarah Gracey, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Division of Forestry. "The thing is, we start to make some progress in containing the fires and then someone comes in the middle of the night and resets them."

On Halloween, a group of teens was arrested in rural Mud Lick, Ky., after a ranger saw them starting a fire.

"They told us they had nothing better to do," said U.S. Forest Service patrol Capt. Dennis Whitehead.

On Thursday, Tennessee authorities caught a 16-year-old boy who police said admitted setting two fires. Eight others in that state face felony charges and possible prison terms for alleged acts of arson, which have claimed more than 30,000 acres in Tennessee in the last two weeks.

The mischief has brought hundreds of firefighters from across the country to the hillside hamlets of Appalachia.

The emphasis isn't so much on dousing flames with water but on building fire lines so the fires burn out without endangering homes. Firefighters use rakes, axes, leaf blowers and even bulldozers to scrape the land down to soil until there's nothing left to burn. A few planes and helicopters have also been deployed.

But here in Pike County, the fire still burns.

Shelby Valley High School continues to be surrounded by such a thick cloud of smoke that classes, called off Tuesday, remain canceled.

Visibility is so low on highways, authorities said, that it caused five vehicles to crash into each other Monday, killing a driver and injuring several others.

"Sometimes you can't even see past the tip of your hood," said Pikeville Fire Chief Tommy Hall.

Nature has been tough lately on Pike County, population 69,000. In August, rivers swelled and flooded, leaving riverbanks strewn with garbage that people continue to pick out today.

But even at a time like this, many residents are big-hearted.

While the hillside above her mobile home burned, Hamilton drove nine miles with her 6-year-old son, Dillon, to buy a pizza for the trio of firefighters stationed in the nearby woods.

"Here you go, guys," she said, handing over the steaming box.

And before she trudged away, her son at her side, a handful of his blond hair in her hand, she said, as much to herself as anyone: "Y'all are guarding all I have."


Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this report.

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