“It takes a long time to get these big fires out,” Gerald Crowell said from the open cab of his Virginia Department of Forestry vehicle. Crowell and units from Blue Ridge Volunteer Fire Department and Mount Weather Fire Department had established an ad-hoc fire control command center at the end of Barker Lane just north of Mount Weather to deal with a major forest fire burning on Buzzard Hill today. Smoke from the 10-acre blaze was clearly visible from Berryville since mid-day and the fire is not expected to be fully under control until tomorrow.
Crowell, Area Forester for Fredrick County and Clarke County, is managing the fire fighting operation which includes approximately 40 fire fighters from Clarke County, Frederick County, Loudoun County and Frederick, Maryland. The effort also includes air support water drops from a Department of Forestry-contracted helicopter flown in from Tappahanock, Virginia and a bulldozer operated by local heavy equipment operator, Ronnie White.
At 6:00pm the blaze was still expanding as it spread down the slopes of Buzzard Hill with fire fighters on scene witnessing occasional flare-ups according to Crowell.
“We’re classifying this as a major fire because of its size and because of the weather conditions. Conditions today are perfect for a fire and we want to get this one under control just as quickly as possible.” Crowell described conditions at the fire site as 87 degrees combined with the very low humidity (20%) and southerly wind 10-17 mph creating a “Class 4” fire threat.
Fire control command centers are busy places even when they are located deep in the forest. Crowell, along with several other fire fighters, were conducting at least four separate and concurrent conversations with the men on the ground fighting the fire and with the woman flying the helicopter overhead.
“How big does the fire look from up there?” asked Crowell. “Looks like around 7-10 acres from here. Hard to tell for sure.” replied a female voice with helicopter blades audible in the background. Crowell said that the helicopter would continue dumping water on the blaze until sunset as it shuttled overhead between the burn site and a farm pond located east of the Blue Ridge in Loudoun County.
Nearby, Blue Ridge Volunteer Fire Company Assistant Fire Chief Mike Cornett was communicating with members of the fire team at the fire site. “We’re going to need some hand lights down here pretty soon” an anonymous radio voice crackled. “And a couple of leaf blowers would be really handy if you can get them.” Soon afterward a message went out asking for food support. Two voluteers soon arrived with dinner for the fire bosses; sliced turkey and white bread. “Hey Gerald, do you want a sandwich?” someone asked. “Sure” Crowell replied between radio calls.
In addition to air support, Crowell said that the bulldozer was attempting to encircle Buzzard Hill with a fire break. “It’s pretty rocky in some spots so it’s slow work. But once we have the fire break in place we’ll perform a back-burn to create a space that the fire can’t cross.” Crowell said that a 10-man team from Loudoun County would be on-site to monitor the fire from 8:00pm this evening until 8:00am tomorrow morning.
The task assigned to the brave fire-fighters spending tonight in the woods with the fire will not be made any easier by the weather. The National Weather Service is predicting breezy conditions and low humidity this evening with southwest winds at 10 mph. The probability of scattered thunderstorms tomorrow afternoon may offer some assistance to firefighters, however, high winds without rain could cause “hot-spots” to flare prolonging the need to monitor the site.
At 10:00pm weather conditions continued favorable to the fire with steady southwest winds at 10 mph gusting to 25 mph.
No injuries had been reported as of 6:00 pm and no property or houses appear to be threatened by the fire. The fire was reported this morning by a hiker from the Appalachian Trail according to Assistant Chief Cornett.
Crowell said that he would begin his investigation into the cause of the blaze tomorrow morning. “Once the immediate threat from the fire is under control I’ll attempt to determine the cause and proceed from there.”
The Buzzard Hill fire’s proximity to the Appalachian Trail makes it likely that hikers passing through Clarke County will need to find an alternative route, at least for the next few days. Cost estimates for containing the fire or for damage to the AT were not immediately available. However, the inclusion of helicopter support, bulldozer operations and manpower from the five attending fire companies will almost certainly carry a hefty price-tag for taxpayers.