Wildfires continued to rage across southeastern Kentucky this week, with more 15,000 acres in flames on Tuesday morning.
In Letcher County, fires continued to burn at Jenkins, Flat Gap and Cowan, after a number of smaller fires were extinguished over the weekend. There have been so many fires since late October that the Kentucky Division of Forestry was unable to give an accurate figure of the number of acres burned late Tuesday afternoon.
Of 15,981 acres still burning in Kentucky on Tuesday, about 15,881 were in a 16-county area in southeastern Kentucky, and more than half of that was concentrated in Letcher and Harlan counties.
A fire at Limbo Hollow at Flat Gap, across a ridge from Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve on the southern slope of Pine Mountain, had grown from just 50 acres last Thursday to 450 acres by Election Day.
A 1,500-acre blaze along Little Shepherd Trail on November 3 had joined with a fire burning from the Nolansburg area of Harlan County on Election Day and was burning a total of 7,400 acres, nearly half the total acreage on fire in the state that day.
Another fire that began on Number 1 Hill in Burdine had burned all the way around one side of Jenkins by Tuesday, scorching 1,000 acres on the northern slope of Pine Mountain. That’s two and a half times as large as five days earlier.
The Division of Forestry was using eight Kentucky National Guard helicopters to help battle the fires. Two were busy last week spotting fires while the other six drew water from area lakes in an attempt to put out the blazes. Low visibility on Tuesday forced a change in tactics, said Jennifer Turner, a public information officer for the Division of Forestry.
“We do still have helicopters, but they’re having a problem with the smoke,” she said.
Local fire departments were kept busy protecting homes and businesses, and fire departments from as far away as Madisonville joined the efforts here.
“We’ve pretty much gone down to skeleton crews in the rest of the state,” said Mark Wiedewitsch, a public affairs officer with the Division of Forestry.
Wiedewitsch and Turner said most of the fires are the result of arson. Wiedewitsch said about 70 percent of the fires are thought to have been started intentionally. The rest have come from campfires, use of heavy equipment, and burning of debris. All 16 counties now have outdoor burning bans in place in an attempt to slow the spread of fires.
Rain forecast for late Tuesday night was expected to help some, but that was the only rain in the forecast for the remainder of the week.
Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward issued an executive order on November 2 that prohibits all outdoor burning in Letcher County until further notice.
“I urge all Letcher County citizens to comply with this executive order so that we can provide for the safety and wellbeing of our fellow citizens and preserve Letcher County timber resources,” Ward said.
The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported Tuesday that 52 of Kentucky’s 120 counties have declared burning bans.
The Courier also reported that some eastern Kentucky residents, including author Silas House of Laurel County, are urging the media to pay more attention to the wildfires.
“ Fi refighters are working around the clock and are stretched thin,” House said on Facebook. “Black Hawk helicopters are throbbing above Pine Mountain, dangling 600 gallon buckets to dump water onto the parched ridges. Schools have been canceled in some counties.”
Kentucky Emergency Management said Tuesday there have been no injuries and no occupied buildings damaged. However, an abandoned house in Jenkins burned earlier this week.
A state of emergency was declared in the City of Fleming- Neon after its water source dried up and burned the motors of pumps that helped supply the water.
Kentucky Emergency Management officials Buddy Rogers said firefighters need a change in the weather. Rogers told The Courier-Journal that light rain forecast probably not be sufficient to extinguish the fires.
Harlan County Judge/Executive Dan Mosley said some residents there have inquired about deer hunting season, which opens this weekend for rifle hunting.
“I’ve been asked if there would be a ban,” Mosley told the Harlan Daily Enterprise. “That is not our call, that’s up to the state. I do not anticipate there will be a hunting ban.”