Rabun firefighters called to multiple forest fires; authorities seek suspected arsonist
MORE: Is Rabun's smoky air a health threat? Read more here.
UPDATE, 11:53 p.m. Friday: All but one engine has left the Timber Bluff Fire scene. That engine will remain on site all night to monitor for hot spots.
The U.S. Forest Service will be setting up a command post in Clayton for all of its firefighting activity in North Georgia. In an email from Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Teka Earnhardt to Clayton Merchants and Business Association Vice President Cricket Workheiser to let Clayton's businesses know, Earnhardt says "We will have an influx of hundreds to thousands of people beginning Monday... They will be working 16 hour shifts but will be based here for at least the next two weeks."
UPDATE, 10:20 p.m. Friday: Rabun County Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said the Timber Bluff Fire, near the Rickman Airfield Road area, will take some time to fight. An engine is being stationed on Tut's Mountain to protect nearby structures.
At the Rock Mountain Fire on U.S. Forest Service land, Tallulah River Road remains closed to all traffic except fire personnel and Tate City residents.
UPDATE, 9:17 p.m. Friday: From the U.S. Forest Service:
The Rock Mountain Fire is now about 900 acres and burning on both sides of Tate City Road near Tate City, Ga., approximately 10 miles north of Clayton. Fire personnel are assessing the fire, which jumped containment lines this afternoon and began to move up Straw Mountain. The human-caused fire is under investigation.
The priority for responders is public and firefighter safety. They are working to protect homes and structures near the fire by clearing out dry leaves and other debris. They also are scouting and assessing additional containment lines.
"The fire is burning steady with four-five foot flame lengths," said Jason Engle, acting district ranger for the Chattooga River Ranger District. "It's not moving fast but it's not easy to stop either. Steep and rugged terrain makes safe firefighting difficult."
UPDATE, 8:33 p.m. Friday: The Rabun County Fire Department continued working toward containment on the Timber Bluff Fire at 8:35 p.m., as it remained a threat to nearby structures. Fire crews had 1,000 gallons of water on hand and were looking at drawing a containment line as soon as possible.
UPDATE, 8:24 p.m. Friday: The U.S. Forest Service has requested that people stay away from wildfire areas. Sightseers are creating a dangerous situation for residents and firefighters who need to move along the roads.
UPDATE, 8:06 p.m. Friday: Firefighters continue to battle a fire on Timber Bluff (more information in the 7:45 p.m. update). Rabun County Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said Station 4 was dispatched to assist U.S. Forest Service on the back side of Tut's Mountain. Forest Service fire crews were also continuing efforts along Tallulah River Road in the Rock Mountain Fire.
In regards to an alternate plan for the Rabun County High School Wildcats game against B.E.S.T. Academy on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Head Coach Lee Shaw says there isn't one, adding that Stephens County is playing in smoky conditions tonight.
UPDATE, 7:45 p.m. Friday: Ash falls from a darkened, smoky sky. Best laid plans are thwarted by Mother Nature's terrain. Homeowners scurry to save precious valuables as authorities tell them to evacuate.
This was the scene Friday evening at a temporary U.S. Forest Service incident command post at the entrance of Tallulah River Road off Persimmon Road. From there, Forest Service fire crews headed toward Tate City with heavy equipment, including bulldozers, to draw their battle lines against two forest fires that finally merged into one. Started from as many as five individual fires set on both sides of Tallulah River Road, the blazes had come to be known as the Rock Mountain Fire on the west side of the road and Flat Branch Fire on the east side. Together, they had consumed more than 600 acres of Rabun County woodland by Friday morning.
As Forest Service crews drew a plan of attack, the goal of which was to save Tate City, residents along nearby Coleman River Road and Nichols Branch Road were evacuated. The call for evacuation came from county officials around 4:20 p.m. At the same time, fire and rescue crews from Towns County headed to Tate City to discuss pre-evacuation plans. It boiled down to this: If the fire jumps Tate Branch on the east side, Tate City must evacuate. If it jumps Charlie's Creek on the west, Tate City must evacuate. That call had not been made by 7:30 p.m. Friday.
For those residents who were evacuated, Rabun County Emergency Management Director Michael Mazarky said Liberty Baptist Church was opening its doors. Located at Bridge Creek and Davis Gap Roads, the church was to be open by 7 p.m. with assistance coming from the Georgia Baptist Association.
Meanwhile, Rabun County Fire Department firefighters returned to Timber Bluff after a grass fire there rekindled. Firefighters originally responded there Thursday morning for a structure fire that sparked the grass fire. By 5:40 p.m. Friday, the fire not only rekindled, it jumped a small containment line. Firefighters were on the scene for more than two hours to extinguish it once more.
The fires at Highway 28, Tallulah River Road and a small one at Warwoman Dell are believed to be acts of arson. The Rabun County Sheriff’s Office is on the lookout for a white male driving a dark blue SUV, possibly an older model Jeep Cherokee, that was seen in the areas of Rabun's fires, which included a 30-acre blaze along Highway 28 in the Burrells Ford area. That fire shut down Highway 28 on Wednesday and for most of Thursday.
Whereas the Highway 28 fire was 100 percent contained by Thursday, the Rock Mountain Fire continued to burn Friday without containment. On the Flat Branch side, firefighters managed 40 percent containment by Friday afternoon.
With Rabun County dried out and getting drier, the county issued a burn ban on Thursday. It came on the heels of a burn ban issued for the Chattahoochee-Oconee Forest Fires that was issued in response to not only Rabun County's fires, but also numerous fires burning in nearby Macon County, North Carolina. Smoke from those fires and the 13,000-plus acre Rough Ridge fire filled Clayton and much of Rabun County until Friday evening, when a shift in winds brought fresh air from South Carolina into Clayton.
But the smoke was still thick in Persimmon at Tallulah River Road around 7 p.m. as Forest Service crews left the incident post to put plans into action.
UPDATE, 6:15 p.m. Friday: U.S. Forest Service has established an incident command post at Tallulah River Road and Persimmon Road to deal with the blaze as it approaches Coleman River Road.
Rabun fire personnel are responding via Rickman Airfield Road to the Timber Bluff fire.
UPDATE, 5:40 p.m. Friday: Fire personnel are reporting fire in the Timber Bluff area near Stekoa Creek, threatening structures.
UPDATE, 5:11 p.m. Friday: Bulldozer brought in and headed down Tallulah River Road toward Tate City to help draw a fire line.
UPDATE, 4:47 p.m. Friday: Evacuation affects 9 residences along Coleman River Road. Nichols Branch Road is also being evacuated. Tate City is not yet under evacuation orders. Towns County Fire Department was back there to work with residents for pre-evacuation plans.
UPDATE, 4:21 p.m. Friday: Evacuations have been ordered for residents on the left side of Coleman River Road closest to Tallulah River Road, and both sides of Nichols Branch Road.
UPDATE, 3:44 p.m. Friday: Smoke from the Macon County, North Carolina, has increased in Clayton, severely limiting sight in some places. Caution is advised if you must drive. Also advised is limiting outdoor activity. Residents who have asthma, COPD or other respiratory issues should be remain indoors with air purifiers, if available.
UPDATE, 3:20 p.m. Friday: At the now closed Tallulah River Road, U.S. Forest Service personnel met with concerned residents of the Persimmon area. Plans include setting up a command center Sunday or Monday near Clayton City Hall. During the update, Towns County Fire and Rescue trucks passed by and headed toward Tate City.
The fire along Tallulah River Road has burned more than 600 acres of Rabun County woodland. Shifting winds have made the fire uncooperative, according to U.S. Forest Service personnel.
Nonperishable supplies to help firefighters may be donated at Station 1 in Clayton or Clayton Police Department.
UPDATE, 2:20 p.m. Friday: Tallulah River Road was closed at Persimmon Road around 12:30 p.m. Residents of Tate City may use the road, but no other traffic is allowed.
UPDATE, 2 p.m. Friday: Rabun County firefighters are called to respond to homes along Coleman River Road. Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said the move is proactive so that protection is immediately available should the fires in the Tallulah River Road area endanger nearby structures.
UPDATE, 1:10 p.m. Friday: The U.S. Forest Service says two fires burning along Tallulah River Road have burned a combined 600 acres of Rabun County woodland.
The Rock Mountain Fire, on the east side of Tallulah River Road, is zero percent contained. Forest Service crews have managed to get 40 percent containment on the Flat Branch Fire, on the west side of Tallulah River Road.
"Due to extreme fire danger and the current drought situation, a total fire ban is in place on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. This means building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire (including charcoal based fire whether contained in a grill or not) is prohibited. Commercially available fuel stoves (camp stoves) are allowed," the update states.
Smoke from these fires, as well as fires in the Burrells Ford area along Warwoman Road, which is 100 percent contained, will continue to impact the air quality in Rabun County. So will fires burning in Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina.
According to the National Weather Service, winds will come from the north through this evening and then from the east on Saturday. Eastern winds might clear much of the smoke that is currently filling the county.
UPDATE, 11 a.m. Friday (New Photos in slider): Head far enough back Tallulah River Road — back past the roadside fires and billowing towers of smoke — and there's a community of worried Rabun County residents. Tate City residents Steve and Julie Sickmond were making their way toward Persimmon when a roadside fire flared up beside them.
"Our house was full of smoke (this morning)," Julie Sickmond said. "We have ash in our car."
"We wanted to bail yesterday, but we didn't," Steve Sickmond said.
Both agreed with another resident passing by —the folks who live in Tate City are nervous.
Currently, there is no word from the U.S. Forest Service updating residents on the situation. Forest Service crews drive the length of Tallulah River Road looking for areas of concern — a tree that burned and fell, burning debris in the road and other dangers. The road to Tate City is fully open, although getting there means driving inches from flames that flare up without warning.
By 10 a.m., shifting winds had cleared much of the smoke from Tate City. Nearby Persimmon wasn't as fortunate as forest fires continue to rage in neighboring Macon County, North Carolina. Smoke from those fires and from the Rough Ridge fire that has consumed more than 10,000 acres continued to hang heavy in much of Rabun County.
Rabun County Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said there has been little fire activity in the county since Thursday. Volunteers extinguished a small electrical fire on Sentry Lane at 4:10 a.m.
At 10:58 a.m., Station 8 was dispatched back to Highway 28 to assist the Forest Service with firefighting efforts in protecting structures along Norman Billingsley Lane. The Highway 28 fire near Burrells Ford was fully contained Thursday, but it continued to be watched for hot spots. The highway remained opened Friday.
UPDATE, 9 a.m. Friday: Smoke is particularly thick in the Persimmon Community, near the Rock Mountain Fire.
The Clayton Police Department is accepting donations such as bottled water, personal hygiene items, etc, can be dropped off at the Clayton Police Department to pass on to all of the crews working in Rabun County.
UPDATE, 7:11 a.m. Friday: Rabun County is waking up to yet another smoky day as winds continue to push smoke from Macon County, North Carolina, fires into Rabun County and further south.
The U.S. Forest Service has not yet issued an update on the Tallulah River Road fire, now known as the Rock Mountain fire. Additional resources were ordered Thursday and are expected to arrive today.
The Rabun County Sheriff's Office continues to seek the public's help in locating the suspected arsonist or arsonists who might have set these fires and at least one more Thursday in Warwoman Dell. Vehicle descriptions include a white Expedition, a Jeep Cherokee with stickers on the back and a dark blue SUV with a male driver. The public is asked to call 911 to report any suspicious activity or burning.
Highway 28 from Warwoman Road to the Georgia/South Carolina state line was opened Thursday and it remains open today.
A burn ban remains in effect for Rabun County.
UPDATE, 9:26 p.m. Thursday: The reported landslide on Tallulah River Road above the fourth bridge was actually a tree that burned through and fell across the road, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Peter Myers with the Forest Service said it was too dangerous tonight to attempt moving or cutting the tree. The fire remains uncontained.
(New photo of Tallulah River Road fire in slider)
UPDATE, 7:53 p.m. Thursday: Dispatchers report to fire personnel in the Tallulah River Road area that a caller reported a landslide on Tallulah River Road above the fourth bridge. The U.S. Forest Service was notified.
UPDATE, 7:33 p.m. Thursday: Rabun County Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch reports that all Rabun County Fire Department personnel have left the Highway 28 fire and Highway 28 is now open between Warwoman Road and the Georgia/South Carolina state line.
Tallulah River Road also remains open, although the U.S. Forest Service discourages travel because of thick smoke in the area and for the safety of firefighters working there. The Forest Service has also released Rabun County Fire Department personnel from standby at the two houses on Coleman River where they were stationed to provide protection from the blaze.
UPDATE, 4:57 p.m. Thursday: U.S. Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Judy Toppins reports that the Tallulah River Road fire continues to burn without containment. The fires — now known as the Rock Mountain and Flat Branch fires — have burned 100-plus acres each. They are expected to merge, at which time they will be called the Rock Mountain fire. Not only is steep terrain in the area an issue in fighting the fire, Toppins said, but hemlock trees in the area have provided plenty of fuel. Additional resources have been ordered to assist with firefighting efforts. They will arrive Friday.
All traffic along Tallulah River Road has been discouraged, however, the road remains open. Toppins said the most populated area that could be impacted by the fire is Tate City.
Also, Rabun County firefighters report that no fire was spotted in the investigation along Sandy Ford Road off Warwoman Road.
(Vicinity map added as second photo in the slider above.)
UPDATE, 4:41 p.m. Thursday: Rabun County firefighters were dispatched to Sandy Ford Road off of Warwoman Road for a fire investigation.
UPDATE, 3:11 p.m. Thursday: Rabun County Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch reports that despite firefighter efforts, a fire claimed a structure near Rainey Mountain Road. The structure fire was called in around 11:45 a.m. It also sparked a small woods fire that firefighters extinguished.
Sheriff Frank Andrews reports that no vehicle matching the descriptions given around 2 p.m. were found along Highway 28 south of the North Carolina border.
Macon County, North Carolina, fire crews now believe all of their wildfires were sparked as a result of arson.
Rabun County Fire Department Station 8 was sent around 1:45 p.m. to provide mutual aid to firefighters from Highlands, North Carolina.
UPDATE, 2:02 p.m. Thursday: Rabun County law enforcement were asked to be on the lookout for a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed along Highway 28 south of the Georgia/North Carolina state line. Macon County, North Carolina, authorities said a forest fire was just set and the vehicle was last seen heading into Georgia. The vehicle was described as a white Expedition. Another vehicle described was a Jeep Cherokee with stickers on the back driven by a white male.
UPDATE, 1:15 p.m. Thursday: (New photos available in slider) Arson is suspected in a fire that was started in Warwoman Dell around 11:30 a.m. Tribune Editor Klark Byrd was on his way to the Highway 28 fire site when he saw and reported a small fire in Warwoman Dell. Neighbors Pam Motes, Bob Watkins and Kelly Wilbanks stopped when they saw smoke and saw Byrd's vehicle leaving the scene on his way to call 911. Prior to the arrival of the Rabun County Sheriff's Office and Rabun County Fire Department, they nearly extinguished the blaze. Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch doused the site with water. Firefighters at the scene were then immediately called to a structure fire on Rainey Mountain Road.
HIGHWAY 28 FIRE: Rabun County Fire Chief James Reed was on scene at what remains of the Highway 28 fire near Burrells Ford. He said the fire jumped the fire line in the early morning hours of Thursday and fire crews were called back there around 1 a.m. A bulldozer helped contain the fire, which was reported as fully contained Thursday morning. Highway 28 remains closed from Warwoman Road to the Georgia/South Carolina state line.
TALLULAH RIVER ROAD FIRE: At 10:30 a.m., fire crews were looking for ways to stop two fires along Tallulah River Road. There was zero percent containment as steep terrain prevented many measures of attack. Helicopters could be heard in the area, but thick smoke prevented visual confirmation. Tate City residents Steve and Julie Sickmond reported to an incident command post that campers in the area were seen with a fire. U.S. Forest Service personnel responded to the area to warn them against burning.
Tallulah River Road remained opened and Tate City residents were not being evacuated. Peter Myers with the U.S. Forest Service was on the scene speaking with residents in the area about the efforts to fight the fire. He said no known structures were currently endangered by the blaze, but fire crews were on hand at nearby structures as a precaution.
It's expected that the two fires burning along Tallulah River Road will merge into one fire sometime later today.
BURN BAN: A statement from Rabun County Fire Services: "Due to extreme drought and high fire danger conditions, The U.S. Forest Service and the Rabun County Government have issued a burn ban until further notice. All outdoor burning is prohibited during this period including campfires, burn barrels, burning leaves, and fireworks. The Georgia Forestry Commission is also not issuing any burn permits until further notice. Thank you for helping us keep our county safe during these extreme conditions."
UPDATE, 9:15 a.m. Thursday: U.S. Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Andrea Crain reports that the Highway 28 fire near Burrells Ford is contained. The road remains closed through Thursday and fire crews are on the scene overseeing it as it burns to completion.
There remains two different fires along Tallulah River Road burning on opposite sides of the road. One is named Rock Mountain. The other is Flat Branch. As of late night Wednesday, each fire was estimated at 100 acres. An updated acreage for burn was not yet available Thursday morning. Crain said the steep terrain along Tallulah River Road was concerning as firefighters were having difficulty gaining a foothold to battle the blazes. As a result, there was no level of containment. Crain said about 50 firefighters and Forest Service personnel were working on the fires and a new crew will be sent in today.
"It may be 24 or 36 hours before a containment level is available," Crain said. "We may be talking about these fires for several days to come."
Crain said no structures were currently threatened by the Tallulah River Road blazes, but as the fires grow it could become a concern. Plans are in place to protect known structures in the nearby area.
Tallulah River Road is currently open, but Crain advises caution for drivers as the area remains "very, very smoky."
"Even if passing through, visual awareness will be reduced and fire equipment and firefighters are on the road," she said.
UPDATE, 8:36 a.m. Thursday: The Rabun County Fire Department was dispatched to Colchester Lane in Mountain City for a report of someone burning material in a barrel. Reminder: Fire crews are busy attending to forest fires and Rabun County is under a burn ban.
UPDATE, 7 a.m. Thursday: The Rabun County Fire Department was sent back to the Highway 28 fire near Warwoman Road at 1 a.m.
Firefighters have remained on scene on Coleman River, where they are standing by at houses to provide protection from the Tallulah River Road fires. Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said crews will likely be there all day.
Upchurch said fire crews just finished up on scene at a trailer fire on Bluegrass Lane outside of Clayton.
UPDATE 10:20 p.m. Wednesday: Increased the number of fires along Tallulah River Road from four to five. Added details in fifth paragraph on the Tallulah River Road fires.
UPDATE 10 p.m. Wednesday: The U.S. Forest Service Fire Incident Manager has said Highway 28 from the Georgia/South Carolina state line to Warwoman Road will be closed through Thursday to through traffic. Affected residents will be escorted in and out by the Forest Service.
ORIGINAL STORY, 9:04 p.m. Wednesday: As volunteer firefighters of several Rabun County Fire Department stations were called to the scene of more than five small fires, authorities began their search for a suspected arsonist.
The Rabun County Sheriff’s Office is on the lookout for a white male driving a dark blue SUV that was seen in the areas of the Rabun fires, two of which were located along Highway 28 at the end of Warwoman Road. Five others were located along Tallulah River Road. Both roads were closed Wednesday evening to traffic.
Authorities asked that anyone with information about the blazes or anyone seeing someone setting fires call 911.
Rabun County Fire Chief James Reed was stationed on the scene of a Highway 28 fire shortly before 8 p.m. He confirmed that arson was suspected as there was no lightning or leaf burning activity when the fires began just a few hours earlier. Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said in a telephone interview that firefighters battling wildfires in neighboring Macon County, North Carolina, suspected an “aggressive arsonist” in those fires.
Reed said at 8 p.m. that no homes or structures were in danger from the fires in Rabun County. He estimated at the time the fires along Highway 28 burned about 38 acres total. He did not have an estimate for the Tallulah River Road fire damage, however, Upchurch said all five there were started independently of each other and all within a couple miles of each other. The fires were between bridge two and bridge four, he said.
Firefighters were tasked with watching over the blazes on U.S. Forest Service land as they burned to the roadside. Reed said a helicopter and bulldozer brought in the by the Forest Service to assist were reassigned from Highway 28 to Tallulah River Road.
The Clayton Tribune will continue to follow-up as details become available.