The wildfire in the Jefferson National Forest north of Big Island has now consumed 6,835 acres and is expected to grow more as it moves toward containment lines that firefighters have set up. However, a weather system moving toward Virginia is expected to bring 1-2 inches of rain on Tuesday.
The fire, first reported Nov. 12, is now by far the biggest wildfire across Virginia this fall, an annual fire season that has been exacerbated by an ongoing drought. On Friday, the fire was listed as just 2% contained. By Sunday morning, it was put at 15% contained. “All in all we had a really good day yesterday, made a lot of progress,” said Troy Floyd, operations section chief for the firefighters from across the country who have converged on the blaze.
He said the fire hasn’t crossed the James River or the Blue Ridge Parkway. “Those lines are holding real good,” he said. The focus of firefighters has been on keeping the fire from spreading east toward some houses near Big Island, and setting up a containment line on the western side to make sure the fire doesn’t threaten houses there, he said. However, he indicated that the fire will continue to spread until it reaches those containment lines in the Petites Gap Road and Big Hellgate Lane neighborhoods in Rockbridge County just east of Natural Bridge Station. Firefighters have used bulldozers to clear some fire lines.
The fire, officially known as the Matts Creek Fire, has closed a portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. Floyd said that even though the fire hasn’t crossed the parkway, trees weakened from the fire have fallen across the road.
On Friday, smoke from the fire prompted schools in at least four localities to close: Amherst, Bedford and Rockbridge counties and Buena Vista. Haze from the fire was reported throughout the Shenandoah Valley. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has been issuing daily health alerts due to the fire. On Sunday, it issued one for Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell, Charlotte and Rockbridge counties and the city of Lynchburg.
“Active children and older adults should limit or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities until conditions improve,” the department said. “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 National Weather Service also issued an advisory of either “enhanced” or “elevated” fire danger across much of Virginia because of low humdity, the drought and light winds. At least 40 localities across the state have instituted bans on open burning.
However, substantial natural help appears to be on the way for limiting wildfires and putting a dent into ongoing moderate to extreme drought covering almost all of the western two-thirds of Virginia.
A strong low-pressure system is set to move northeast from the south-central U.S. across the Ohio Valley toward the Northeast. This will sweep abundant Gulf of Mexico moisture northward, leading to what is expected to be a round of widespread soaking rainfall for Virginia, 1-2 inches for many locations and locally more, on Tuesday.
Colder air will sweep in behind the storm for Thanksgiving and the weekend. There may be another system to bring lighter rain — possibly higher-elevation snow — by Friday and Saturday.
It appears that this storm system is the start of a generally cooler, wetter pattern for the Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic extending through the remainder of November into early December, with periodic storm systems and cold fronts. Winter weather patterns during years when El Niño, the irregularly recurring warming of equatorial Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures, is present are usually wetter than normal with frequent storm systems moving across the South toward our region. It is unclear yet if the coming pattern change is the start of a more typical El Niño weather pattern that could potentially reverse the drought entirely within weeks.
Brief rain on Friday evening slowed the fire slightly and allowed somewhat better containment, but dry westerly winds behind a cold front on Saturday quickly spread the flames again.
The Virginia Department of Forestry listed two other fires Sunday that are not fully contained: the Hoover Camp Fire in Buchanan County, which has consumed 700 acres and is listed at 65% contained, and the Larkin Mountain Fire in Amherst County, which has consumed 5 acres and is listed at 0% contained.
Cardinal News weather journalist Kevin Myatt contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinmyattwx and sign up for his free weekly newsletter. He discussed the drought in his weekly column.