• The latest infrared map of the Rock Mountain Fire using KMZ files provided by the U.S. Forest Service.
    Rock Mountain Fire map
  • A view of the Rock Mountain Fire on Tuesday evening from private property in Persimmon looking north. (Peter McIntosh/For The Clayton Tribune)
    Rock Mountain Fire
  • A U.S. Forest Service helicopter drops a load of water on the Rock Mountain Fire on Wednesday around 1:30 p.m. (Klark Byrd/The Clayton Tribune)
    Water Drop
  • The Rock Mountain Fire as seen from the Sky Valley Overlook on Tuesday evening around 8:30 p.m. (Klark Byrd/The Clayton Tribune)
    Rock Mountain Fire
  • Heavy smoke flows north from the Rock Mountain Fire as seen from the Sky Valley Overlook on Wednesday. (Klark Byrd/The Clayton Tribune)
    Rock Mountain Fire smoke
  • A map showing the daily progression of the Rock Mountain Fire. The part in red is the most recent growth.
    U.S. Forest Service map

Rock Mountain Fire threatens Patterson Gap, Betty's Creek areas

VIDEO: Click here to see a time lapse video of the Rock Mountain Fire filmed Monday night from Sky Valley by Moody Barrick.

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UPDATE, 9:40 a.m. Saturday: Containment on the Rock Mountain Fire burning in Rabun and Towns counties in Georgia and Clay and Macon counties in North Carolina has reached 40 percent after an optimal day for burnout operations on Friday. Higher humidity and some rainfall helped to slow the growth of the fire, which is now 19,184 acres, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Forest Service.

"Air and ground resources began burning out in the early afternoon in the area of Patterson Gap, west to Abe Gap. Burnout operations were also conducted on Little Ridgepole Mountain, just east of the Appalachian, trail down towards Betty's Creek," an update stated. "The southern perimeter from Abe Gap to Upper Hightower road and from Tallulah River road to upper Tate City was monitored and patrolled for hotspots. The minimal heat that was found was well within the interior of the fire area."

For today, the U.S. Forest Service plans to continue strategic burnout operations from Chestnut Ridge east towards Little Ridgepole Mountain. That will continue east towards Betty's Creek Road and then south towards Patterson Gap before heading west to bring fire to the fire lines in the Abe Gap area. The operation is weather dependent, the update stated. 

Helping to get the job done are 563 personnel in 11 crews with 44 engines, three bulldozers, four water tenders and seven helicopters.

Evacuation and pre-evacuation zones remain unchanged from earlier reports. 

As if in answer to weeks of prayer by Rabun County residents, the National Weather Service is forecasting rain in the early part of next week. The could be the means to end the fire as Pacific Northwest Team 3 Incident Commander Noel Livingston told residents in a Monday community meeting that a rain event would be necessary to quell the fire. Chances for rain have been increasing with each passing day, as the National Weather Service is now forecasting an 80 percent chance of rain Monday evening through Wednesday. 

Chances for rain begin Monday at 30 percent, increasing to 50 percent and 80 percent as the day wears on. Tuesday and Wednesday chances are forecast at 80 percent, with meteorologists saying "The rain could be heavy at times." Chances begin to fall off Wednesday evening, down to 60 percent, before returning to mostly sunny and sunny conditions on Thursday and Friday.

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UPDATE, 3:58 p.m. Friday: The Rabun County Fire Department was called to a brush fire in the 1400 block of Tame Turkey Road at 3:50 p.m.

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UPDATE, 1:30 p.m. Friday (new photos in the slider): The Cliff Creek Fire in the area of Flint Mountain Lane and East Wolf Creek Road in Tiger is 95 percent contained after burning approximately 6 acres, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Forest Service.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, the Forest Service stated in an update. Interior smoke has continued to rise and firefighters have built a line around the perimeter. Previously, Rabun County Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said Stations 12 and 4 responded around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday and were on scene with the U.S. Forest Service to contain it.

On the Timber Ridge Fire, firefighters have begun rehabilitation efforts at bulldozer lines to repair impacts to the land. The 888-acre fire was at 98 percent containment at 1 p.m., according to the U.S. Forest Service. 

The 18,069-acre Rock Mountain Fire was up to 35 percent containment as operations continued to focus on protecting homes in the Patterson Gap/Betty's Creek areas, which are on the eastern side of the fire. All bulldozer lines to protect the area are expected to be completed today, the update stated, while containment efforts on the northern edge of the fire will continue.

There has been no change to previous evacuation and pre-evacuation zones. Rabun County EMA continues to ask that non-residents stay out of the area for firefighter safety.

To date, there has been no loss of human life or structures to any of the wildfires that have burned in Rabun County since Nov. 9.

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UPDATE, 9:30 a.m. Friday: In a morning briefing Friday, U.S. Forest Service personnel said Thursday was a "quiet day" for the Rock Mountain Fire. Rain overnight Wednesday accompanied by higher humidity on Thursday helped stunt the growth of the 18,069-acre blaze that's burning in the four-county, two-state area along the Georgia/North Carolina state line. Firefighters have been able to achieve 35 percent containment on the fire.

Operations on Thursday included more burnout along the northern edges of the fire while monitoring occurred along the southern edges. Patrols will be out again Friday to monitor containment lines to ensure they remain clear of debris. Burnout operations will resume to back the fire toward the ridge in the Patterson Gap/Betty's Creek area. Structure protection efforts will continue in that area as well. 

There were 567 personnel among 12 crews operating 40 engines, four water tenders, four bulldozers and seven helicopters in the fight against the Rock Mountain Fire. Some early morning fog was expected to prevent morning air operations, which were expected to resume Friday afternoon.

Previous pre-evacuation orders for Patterson Gap north of Camp Ramah Darom and all roads on Betty's Creek Road north of Tom Wilson Road remain in effect. Rabun County EMA has asked that all non-residents stay out of the area for the safety of the firefighters.

Smoky conditions could be seen in Clayton today as winds from the northwest push Rock Mountain Fire smoke in that direction. An air quality forecast describes the air quality on Friday as "Unhealthy" with an expected return to "Moderate" on Saturday. 

There was no further word Friday morning on a 6-acre fire that happened off Flint Mountain Lane in Tiger.

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UPDATE, 11:45 a.m. Thursday: Rabun County Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said the fire in Tiger was in the area of Flint Mountain Lane and East Wolf Creek Road at around 1:30 p.m. Stations 12 and 4 responded and were on scene with the U.S. Forest Service to contain it.

"Our Station 4 stayed on scene until released by USFS," Upchurch said.

See previous update for current report on the fire.

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UPDATE, 11:23 a.m. Thursday: The U.S. Forest Service has reported a new fire in Tiger, a roughly 6 acre burn off of Flint Mountain Lane known as the Cliff Creek Fire. Containment at the time of report was unknown, as was the cause. There are structures within 2 miles of the fire, but no calls for evacuations and no closures.

The Rock Mountain Fire has grown to more than 18,000 acres and Forest Service crews have upped the level of containment to 35 percent. There has been no change in the areas under pre-evacuation orders.

Containment on the Timber Ridge Fire was upped to 98 percent. The blaze has not grown in size, which was 888 acres.

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UPDATE, 9:45 a.m. Thursday: Rabun County EMA said burning operations around the Rock Mountain Fire will continue today around Patterson Gap and Abe Road, back toward Hap-n-So and Betty's Creek. 

"This is a slow process so this will take a few days to complete," EMA stated in a Facebook post. "Search and Rescue went door to door in this area and handed out information about what to expect."

EMA says people continue to pass through roadblocks on Patterson Gap, a dangerous move as fire crews walk the roads in the management of the fire. EMA asks that all non-residents stay out of the area. 

"Crews will continue to prep the homes in and around Betty's Creek, Messer Creek and Big Creek Roads today so please watch out for them," EMA stated.

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UPDATE, 8:15 a.m. Thursday: Rabun County residents have prayed for rain. Those prayers were answered Wednesday night and Thursday morning as up to a quarter of an inch of rain fell in parts of the ever-growing Rock Mountain Fire, said U.S. Forest Service officials, which has helped stunt it's growth for today.

Already around 15,000 acres, the Rock Mountain Fire is expected to grow just a quarter of a mile today as the day starts off with 100 percent humidity there. That's down from the 1/2 a mile to a mile it has grown every day before. Drying is expected as the sun comes out and operations will be dependent on conditions. Smoke is expected on the east edge of the fire, perhaps in Dillard, as winds of 5-10 mph come from the west. 

Crews are tasked with monitoring fire lines to maintain the 30 percent containment on the Rock Mountain Fire. 

Looking ahead, meteorologists say another bout of rain is expected early next week. The National Weather Service forecast is calling for a 60 percent chance of rain Monday evening through Tuesday, with chances increasing to 70 percent Tuesday and falling to 40 percent Wednesday.

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UPDATE, 11:18 p.m. Wednesday: It's raining in Clayton and residents report rain around Black Rock Mountain and Timber Bluff. The National Weather Service has forecast a 40 percent chance of rain tonight, lessening into a 30 percent chance until 9 a.m. Thursday. Less than 1/10th of an inch is expected.

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UPDATE, 11:06 a.m. Wednesday: U.S. Forest Service firefighters took advantage of a shift in fire behavior Tuesday as winds pushed the fire back toward itself to the north. An update from the Forest Service states that old trails were cleared for use as fire lines and bulldozers made new lines behind homes in the Patterson Gap, Messer Creek and Betty's Creek areas while residents assisted by moving firewood and clearing gutters.

"The containment line near Tate City has been extended to the end of Tallulah Road into North Carolina," the update stated.

The Forest Service said it will continue to focus on home protection and property east of the fire in the Patterson Gap and Betty's Creek areas, and staff will be increased to complete the task. Fire lines are expected to be completed today as well.

There is a slight chance for rain this evening, although Forest Service meteorologists expect little precipitation. The front pushing in will, however, bring higher humidity - up to 100 percent - in the valleys, which will mean higher humidity on the ridges. The benefit will be a slower back burning for the thus far relentless Rick Mountain Fire.

Thirty-six personnel continue to staff the Timber Ridge Fire, which has burned 888 acres and is 95 percent contained.

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UPDATE, 8:38 a.m. Wednesday: Rabun County EMA is reporting that U.S. Forest Service crews have received a break as the Rock Mountain Fire has slowed at the Patterson Gap ridge.

"This will give the Forest Service crews some more time to prep around the homes on Patterson, Messer Creek and Big Creek Road," EMA stated in a morning Facebook post. "They worked really hard yesterday cutting fire breaks on the old logging roads in the area and will continue that great work today."

According to EMA, the Forest Service still plans to bring the fire down around homes in order to fight for containment, adding "it's a matter of when this will happen."

"As soon as we know, we will let you know and Search and Rescue will come and knock on the doors of those homes."

EMA reiterated its call for non-residents to stay away from the affected areas for firefighter safety.

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ORIGINAL STORY: The relentless Rock Mountain Fire that once threatened homes in two Persimmon area communities on both sides of Tallulah River Road has now become a threat to residents in Patterson Gap and Betty’s Creek.

Officials have issued pre-evacuation notices to approximately 150 homes in the area, which includes Messer Creek, as the state’s second largest active wildfire burns away at thousands of acres in a four county, two state area. Now affecting Rabun and Towns counties in Georgia and Macon and Clay counties in North Carolina, the Rock Mountain Fire has grown to more than 14,757 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service. That makes it second only to the Rough Ridge Fire that’s burned more than 27,870 acres in Fannin County.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service said pre-evacuation orders for Plum Orchard, Coleman River and Nichols Branch roads in Persimmon have been lifted. But as the Rock Mountain Fire grows between a ½ mile to a mile per day, pre-evacuation orders were issued for all roads along Betty’s Creek Road north of Tom Wilson Road and for Patterson Gap north of Camp Ramah Darom. Under Towns County, pre-evacuation orders also remained in place for Tate City and Upper Hightower.

Rabun County EMA warned Tuesday morning that the fire had crested the ridge at Patterson Gap overnight Monday, making it visible from the Wolffork Valley to Sky Valley. Several calls reporting the fire were handled by Rabun County 911 on Monday night.

Rabun County EMA Director Michael Mazarky has also asked that those not living in the pre-evacuation zones stay away for the safety of the firefighters working in the area. Many of the roads are narrow, which make it difficult to get firetrucks and other equipment in place, Forest Service officials said Monday.

Noel Livingston is the incident commander for Pacific Northwest Team 3, which was brought in by the Forest Service to handle the blaze. He told residents Monday evening that the fire has the potential to more than double in size to 30,000 acres, adding it could get bigger. On Tuesday, the fire was 30 percent contained.

The Clayton Tribune

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