Note: This story was updated at 11:20 a.m. Nov. 10.
NEW RIVER—Arson is suspected in three fires that have burned close to 2,000 acres in mountainous north Anderson County in the past week, authorities said Tuesday.
The largest fire, the Three Heads Fire in Double Camp behind Rosedale Elementary School on Highway 116, was estimated to have started on November 2. Crews had been holding it at about 1,500 acres, but someone went in behind firefighters and restarted the fire in a mountain gap about two days ago, said Bruce Miller, Tennessee Division of Forestry forestry technician in Anderson County.
Crews had to go to the north end of Anderson County to cut off the fire, which has grown to 1,600 acres, Miller said.
“It’s going to get bigger,” he said.
The fire is northeast of the Tennessee Valley Authority wind turbines on Buffalo Mountain, which are visible from Oak Ridge on a clear day. No personal property was reported to be at risk on Tuesday morning. A Tennessee Division of Forestry bulldozer was headed to the fire when Oak Ridge Today interviewed Miller in New River.
A second fire, the Beech Grove Fire in Devonia along Highway 116, was contained as of Tuesday morning. Earlier, it was a 25-acre blaze behind Tioga Cemetery, which is also along that highway.
That fire started November 3. Since then, it’s grown to 900 acres.
“The arsonists kept coming in behind us and setting it up the mountain,” Miller said.
On Tuesday morning, the fire was in patrol status, meaning firefighters would continue to check fire lines and make sure nothing crossed them.
Part of that fire was still burning Tuesday morning next to the highway, about six miles northeast of the former Brushy Mountain Prison in Morgan County.
A new fire, a third fire, was reported Monday night on Gilmore Trail. Miller estimated that fire at a few hundred acres, and he said he was driving up there Tuesday morning.
“They’re all going to be arson,” Miller said. “I’m classifying them, until I determine otherwise, as arson.”
There have been no lightning strikes in the area, he said.
The conditions are challenging for state crews.
“We’ve got extremely dry conditions; really low humidity; rough, rugged terrain; and an arsonist,” Miller said. “Those conditions make it really tough to put fires out.”
Brush fires in Tennessee have blanketed communities like Oak Ridge and the Knoxville area with a thick smoky haze during the past few days. However, conditions seemed to have improved in Oak Ridge on Tuesday, compared to Monday.
The Tennessee Division of Forestry reported 51 active fires on Tuesday with more than 5,700 acres burned. That was down from 96 active fires on Sunday.
A light rain was forecast on Wednesday, but the one-tenth inch would not be sufficient to help fight the fires, especially in these dry conditions, Miller said.
He said firefighters are using bulldozers in Anderson County—three on average—along with an average of six 150-175 gallon pump units that fit into the beds of pickup trucks and spray water or foam. There have been an average of nine to 11 firefighters battling the brush fires here. The firefighters come and go because they’re also helping to fight other fires.
The bulldozers are building roads into and around fires. Using hand tools such as rakes is not sufficient because of the dry conditions and the terrain, Miller said.
He said it’s been difficult to identify fires because of the low visibility. He’s had to wait until nighttime to be able to see fires through the smoke.
There have been other fires in the area or ones that Miller has helped fight. One fire of about one-tenth acre was set on Brushy Mountain at about 10 p.m. Monday. Miller was in charge of the 2,600-acre Sugar Ridge Fire off Stony Fork Road in the Beech Fork community in Campbell County until he came to the Double Camp fire in Anderson County. The Sugar Ridge Fire is out now, Miller said.
He said crime unit personnel are coming in from all over the state. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture Crime Unit is asking questions and following up on leads, Miller said.
The state hasn’t used volunteer firefighters from departments like Briceville, Claxton, Marlow, Medford, and Petros. They’re being held in reserve for fires that might endanger structures, Miller said.
Residents hope that the state can stop the arsonists.
“I wish they’d catch them, whoever’s setting them,” said Warren Carroll of Rosedale. “We’ve got a lot of old people with health conditions.”
A thick white-gray blanket of smog smothered the New River Valley near the fires on Tuesday, partially obscuring homes in the valley and the mountains towering above them. Ash occasionally floated down from the sky.
“That smoke mixing with the fog in the morning: It’s bad,” said Scotty Phillips, owner of the New River General Store.
“I’m 73 years old, and I’ve never seen it this dry,” said Roy Burchfield, who lives in the area.
Phillips said the Double Camp Fire is in a big hollow behind the Rosedale Elementary School on what locals call Volunteer Mountain or Rosedale Mountain.
The smoke and fire weren’t expected to affect voting at the Rosedale voting precinct on Tuesday. That precinct has voters cast ballots at the New River General Store. It’s the smallest precinct in Anderson County, with about 150-160 registered voters.
Travis Russ of Volunteer Trenching checked on his company’s gas wells in the area on Tuesday morning.
“Right now, everything’s fine as far as the wells,” Russ said.
Late Tuesday morning, a convoy of five Tennessee Division of Forestry vehicles drove into the New River area on Highway 116 as Oak Ridge Today was driving out.
Anderson County Commissioner Philip Warfield, who represents District 3 (Andersonville, Norris), said residents have communicated with him about the fires. One question that’s come up: Why can’t firefighters use helicopters and water from Norris Lake to fight the fires?
Miller said he has the authority to request helicopters if fires pose a threat to structures, homes, and businesses. But pilots would have to be able to see the fires, Miller said, and the visibility on Tuesday was “nil.”
There are also power lines that would have to be considered for helicopter flights, and there was no imminent danger to structures, Miller said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See a map of the fires in East Tennessee on Tuesday here.
See a list of the fires here.
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