From CPP: Teams battle wildfires in Western NC

Night Ops by Bobby Ellis of Engine 9 on Nov. 8, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

The Collett Ridge wildfire in the Nantahala National Forest is the largest of several throughout Western North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Forest Service. It started on Oct. 23 and has grown to more than 5,447 acres, affecting Cherokee, Macon, and Clay counties. Despite an early November cold front that brought cooler temperatures and light rain, the fire, sparked by lightning, according to the U.S. Forest Service, remains only 80% contained as of Nov. 16. The challenging terrain, low humidity, and ongoing drought have exacerbated the situation. Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency on Nov. 8, enabling additional protective measures.

A state of emergency, according to state law, can be declared during a situation or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from a natural or man-made cause. The declaration enables government officials to take extra measures to protect the public.

The response includes 232 local, state, and federal firefighting teams attempting to contain the fire, which is four miles south of Andrews in the southwest corner of the state. In addition to federal and state agencies, personnel from county emergency management teams, law enforcement, and volunteer fire departments are also typically part of the team that responds to wildfires.

Collett Ridge Fire Photo: Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

The Collett Ridge fire is located in a steep and remote area of the Nantahala National Forest. To minimize the risk to firefighters, the strategy utilized existing and man-made fire containment lines, such as streams and roads. The fire response was initially coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service and the North Carolina Forest Service, but as the fire expanded, the Forest Service delegated authority to an incident command team – an interagency group of experts that coordinate logistics, operations, and information. Firefighter and public safety are the U.S. Forest Service’s top priorities in wildfire response.

Amid an ongoing severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Western North Carolina is experiencing a surge in wildfires and elevated wildfire risk that endanger both communities and public lands. The risk of additional wildfires remains, requiring the collective efforts of residents, land managers, and emergency personnel to protect both public lands and private property. The North Carolina Forest Service, which is responsible for protecting state- and privately-owned forest land from wildfires, has banned open burning in 30 WNC counties.

“If we have an extended period of drought in the fall, we can have massive fires that are really hard to stop,” said U.S. Forest Service fire research ecologist Steve Norman. “As you’re trying to put it out, it’s constantly being replenished by litter falling from the trees.”

In Henderson County, the 95% contained 430 acre Poplar Drive fire destroyed two homes, two outbuildings, and three cabins. In the Nov. 14 Poplar Drive fire briefing, Brian Rogers of the N.C. Forest Service said fire crews are identifying repairs to infrastructure, such as roads and culverts.

“Wildfires suppression uses heavy equipment,” he said. “Sometimes there is wear and tear to logging roads, the land, and properties. We’re looking at what we need to do to get those repaired.”

The Collett Ridge fire has not yet resulted in any lost structures. The fully contained 300-acre East Fork fire in Jackson County is not expected to spread.

On Nov. 16, a 150-acre fire in Haywood County, caused by a vehicle accident on Interstate-40, was reported by the U.S. Forest Service. The agency stated that a 20-person hand crew, supported by aircraft water and fire-retardant drops, was working to slow its advance.

The ecological benefits of wildfires

Night Ops by Bobby Ellis of Engine 9 on Nov. 8, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

MountainTrue public lands biologist Josh Kelly and U.S. Forest Service fire research ecologist Steve Norman emphasize the long-term ecological benefits of wildfires, such as improved wildlife habitat and reduced future wildfire risk. However, they caution against the challenges in managing wildfires compared to controlled burns.

“The forests will be better off in the long run,” Kelly said. “The downside is that wildfires, as opposed to controlled burns, are much more difficult to manage.” Kelly also highlights the increased risk posed by developments in vulnerable areas.  The widespread fires of 2016, including the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire in Eastern Tennessee, serve as a stark reminder of the potential severity of such events.

There are also high costs associated with wildfire response, Norman said, depending on the range of resources used, its proximity to structures, and population density.

“We can be more intentional about where we build houses. Building on forested slopes and ridges increases their risk,” Kelly said. “Developments that are allowed to be built with inadequate access are also a huge risk. When policymakers approve developments, they should account for the potential wildfire.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center an estimated $12 million has been spent on the Collett Ridge fire.

“It takes a lot of money to keep everybody safe,” Norman said.

Todd and Lindy Smith, who own and rent three log cabins located within two miles of the wildfire’s origin on Collett Creek, expressed their satisfaction with the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to keep residents informed and safe.

“We were very concerned when the fire started,” said Todd Smith, who has stayed in close contact with the U.S. Forest Service throughout the duration of the fire.

The Smiths also received operation updates from the agency’s Facebook Page that included daily briefings with videos addressing the progress of the fire and the response.

“I would say we were pleasantly surprised with the U.S. Forest Service,” he said. “They were really focused on keeping residents safe.”

The situation remains precarious

Operational field updates on Nov. 8, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

The response team is working with local fire departments on structure protection plans for future wildfires. While the fire is gradually being contained, ongoing monitoring and mop-up operations continue, with some resources expected to be withdrawn. The situation remains precarious without significant rainfall, as hot spots may persist, requiring continued vigilance from firefighters.

In the Nov. 15 Collett Ridge fire briefing, Wes McKinney of the response team said they are working with local fire departments to develop structure protection plans for future wildfires.

While even a small amount of rain can aid firefighters, without significant precipitation, hot spots may continue to smoke, requiring firefighters to continue monitoring the landscapes.

“We are starting to move resources out. We’ll probably have most resources out by Friday [11/17],” he said.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is released weekly on Thursday, several counties in WNC, including Cherokee County, are experiencing extreme drought conditions.

Lack of rainfall, fuel from falling leaves, and unseasonably warm temperatures are a volatile combination, said Norman of the U.S. Forest Service.

“Fires are common in the Southern Appalachians in the fall and spring and are always a concern,” he said. But the widespread fires of 2016 throughout the Southern Appalachians “shocked the fire research community”.

Over 50,000 acres burned in the fall of 2016 during an extreme drought. Among them was the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire that burned 18,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spreading to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing 14 and damaging 1,400 structures.

“[The year] 2016 was extraordinary. It demonstrated just how massive fall fires can be,” Norman said. “So anytime we have a big event like the Collette Ridge fire, we take notice.”



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This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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