Wildfires in Great Smoky Mountains burning 300 acres; trails, campsites remain closed

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials have closed trails and backcountry campsites near Bryson City due to wildfires burning in the area.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials have closed trails and backcountry campsites near Bryson City due to wildfires burning in the area.

Update: Two wind-driven wildfires continue burning inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park the morning of March 27, according to a National Park Service news release.

The official cause is down power lines due to high winds and fallen trees, according to a National Park Service news release.

The Thomas Divide Complex Fire comprises two wildfires — the 140-acre Stone Pile Fire and the Cooper Creek Fire, which is estimated to be 170 acres. The fire is estimated to be 10% contained with about half of the fire burning inside the park.

A Unified Command Center has been established to coordinate suppression efforts and includes personnel from the NPS, North Carolina Forest Service, Bryson City Fire Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

About 50 firefighters are working to establish firebreak lines using hand crews and bulldozers. Outside the park, firefighters are working to provide structure protection. Air resources are available to respond if wind speeds allow, according to the news statement.

The National Weather Service again issued a red flag warning March 27 for much of Western North Carolina through 8 p.m., meaning "a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior."

Smokies rangers closed several trails and backcountry campsites at 4:30 p.m. March 26 due to wildfires burning between Deep Creek and Newfound Gap Road in North Carolina.

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The Thomas Divide Complex Fire is burning inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City on March 27, 2022.
The Thomas Divide Complex Fire is burning inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City on March 27, 2022.

The following areas are now closed:

Backcountry campsites 46, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, and 60; Deep Creek and Thomas Divide trails from Deep Creek to Newfound Gap Road; Pole Road Creek, Indian Creek, Stone Pile Gap, Deep Creek Horse Bypass, Juney Whank Falls, Deeplow, Fork Ridge, Sunkota Ridge, Martins Gap, Indian Creek Motor Nature, Mingus Creek, Newton Bald, Kanati Fork, and Loop trails.

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Toms Branch Road near Deep Creek is also closed. The Deep Creek Campground and Picnic Area are not scheduled to open for the season until April 15.

At about 1 p.m. March 26, park officials were notified that a fire south of the park near Cooper Creek was approaching the park boundary. When responding to this fire, rangers detected another fire near Stone Pile Gap near the Thomas Divide area, according to the news release.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is leading suppression efforts for the Cooper Creek Fire. Bryson City Fire Department is leading suppression efforts for the Thomas Divide Fire Complex. National Park Service, state, and county resources have also responded to support efforts. An Incident Command Post has been established at the Swain County East Elementary School.

Earlier in the day, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning in WNC, which means that critical fire weather conditions are occurring or are imminent. A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior.

Northwest winds of 20-30 mph with gusts of up to 50 mph were forecast, along with humidity as low as 17.

"Outdoor fires may easily grow out of control under these conditions," according to the NWS weather warning.

Wildfires burning in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are seen March 26, 2022 from the Newfound Gap webcam.
Wildfires burning in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are seen March 26, 2022 from the Newfound Gap webcam.

The North Carolina Forest Service also warned of an increased fire danger for most of the state.

"The combination of low fuel moisture, gusty winds (and) low minimum relative humidity will result in increased fire danger for most of the state on Saturday. Outdoor burning is discouraged," the NCFS posted to social media.

The red flag warning for Madison, Haywood, Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson counties is in effect from late morning March 27 through the evening.

The Smokies cover a half-million acres of rugged, high-elevation, forested terrain on the Western North Carolina border with eastern Tennessee. It is the most-visited national park with 14.1 million visitors in 2021.

Karen Chávez is Content Coach/Investigations Editor for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Tips? Call 828-712-6316, email, KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or follow on Twitter @KarenChavezACT.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Great Smokies wildfires cause trail, campsite closures in NC