Friday morning update: The Forest Service says the fire has grown to 5,148 acres, which makes it the biggest fire in the state this season.
The wildfire in the Jefferson National Forest in Bedford County has now spread to 3,600 acres, while smoke pouring from it has shut down schools in multiple localities and prompted the state to issue a Code Red air quality alert for much of the western part of the state.
Schools in Amherst, Bedford and Rockbridge counties and Buena Vista said Thursday that they have canceled classes for Friday after the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued a Code Red air quality alert that was set to run through midnight Thursday.
That alert covers Amherst, Bedford and the entire Shenandoah Valley from Rockbridge County north into the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.
“Active children and adults should limit or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities until conditions improve,” according to a statement from the National Weather Service. “People unusually sensitive to air pollution, especially those with heart or lung disease (including asthma), should avoid strenuous outdoor activities until conditions improve. Take more breaks, do less intense activities. People with asthma should follow their asthma action plans and keep quick-relief medicine handy.”
The Matt’s Creek Fire, which was first reported Sunday north of Big Island, is listed as just 2% contained. The burn area is within the James River Face Wilderness and threatens no structures but has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to close a section of the Appalachian Trail and about 20 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, from milepost 66.3, near U.S. 501, to milepost 85.9, at Virginia 43.
The fire is one of 52 wildfires burning across the state. The largest is the Quaker Run Fire in Madison County, which has burned 3,937 acres and is listed as 83% controlled, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry. Matt’s Creek is now the second biggest, with the Rocklick Fire in Buchanan County the third biggest at 2,223 acres; it’s 90% contained, according to the department.
Other fires that have burned more than 1,000 acres are the Tuggle’s Gap Fire in Patrick County (1,150 acres and 100% contained) and the Rachel’s Chapel fire in Dickenson County (1,135 acres and 90% contained)
The latest U.S. Drought Monitor, issued on Thursday, expanded the “severe drought” rating to include Bedford County, as well as portions of Franklin, Pittsylvania, Campbell, Grayson, Carroll and Patrick counties. A section from northern Rockbridge County to southern Shenandoah County has previously been declared an “extreme drought” area.
[Weather journalist Kevin Myatt writes more about the drought.]