The fire in the Jefferson National Forest has now spread to more than 11,000 acres but has been contained enough that it no longer poses a “major threat” to the public, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said Tuesday.
Although the fire is officially listed as only 33% contained, those containment lines have stopped the spread of the 11,016-acre fire toward houses in the Big Island area of Bedford County and the Arnold’s Valley area of Rockbridge County, said Troy Floyd, operations section chief for the firefighting response. Updated Nov. 21, 6 p.m.: The Forest Service now lists the fire at 11,020 acres and 57% contained.
Tuesday’s rainfall is expected to help dampen the blaze, which has sent smoke across much of the western part of the state, forcing the closure of schools in some localities. On Tuesday, Rockbridge County schools remained closed while Amherst County schools were providing virtual learning on Tuesday and Bedford County schools were operating on a two-hour delay.
“Everything’s looking really, really good — I can’t emphasize that enough. It looks like we are getting a handle on any fire spread,” Floyd said in a briefing Tuesday morning. “Mother Nature has come in and the timing was really perfect.”
For the first time since last week, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has not issued an air quality alert. “Widespread heavy rain on Tuesday should reduce smoke impacts from wildfires across the Commonwealth, keeping air quality in the green/good range on Tuesday,” the department said. “However, if you can see/smell smoke near the ground, consider Code Orange or worse conditions and take the necessary precautions as needed, especially if you have existing heart or lung ailments including asthma.”
A large area of rain moved into Virginia early Tuesday as expected. Rainfall of 1-3 inches is forecast through early Wednesday, the most many locations have received in a single day in two months or more.
Cooler temperatures and high humidity accompanying rain will also be beneficial in helping crews contain the fire.
The fire was first reported Nov. 12. Floyd said Tuesday that it began near the Appalachian Trail but the cause remains unknown and is under investigation. A smaller fire broke out over the weekend near the blaze in the Snowden area of Rockbridge County. Floyd said that fire was ruled human-caused and was not a “jump” from the bigger fire. Parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail remain closed in the area. Much of the fire is in the James River Face Wilderness where the river cuts through the Blue Ridge. This includes the popular Devil’s Marbleyard hiking area. The Forest Service reported Monday that the popular Matts Creek shelter and privy on the Appalachian Trail had survived the fire.
The Virginia Department of Forestry says it has battled more wildfires this fall than anytime in the past 20 years. As of Tuesday, the only uncontained fire remaining in the state is the Hoover Camp Fire in Buchanan County, which is holding at 1,402 acres and 75% contained, according to the department.
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.