Tennessee declares state of emergency due to drought, wildfires

Anderson County wildfire
Anderson County wildfire

NASHVILLE (WATE) – The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has declared a state of emergency due to the continuing drought, wildfires and threat of wildfires.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conversation issued a Code Orange air quality alert Friday for the Chattanooga are, which includes Hamitlon, Marion and Sequatchie counties. The alert also extends to Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties in Georgia. A Code Orange Air Quality Alert means persons with heart and lung disease, older adults, and children are at greater risk from the presence of particles in the air.

Related story: Regional burn ban issued for entire East Tennessee area

TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan says around 302 of Tennessee’s 480 water systems are having some level of drought impact, ranging from moderate to exceptional. At least three counties have requested assistance for residents whose wells have run dry. Counties in the exceptional drought category include Bradley, Hamilton, Marion, Meigs, McMinn, Monroe, Polk, Rhea, and Sequatchie.

Around 6,000 to 6,200 acres have burned due to wildfires in Bledsoe, Hamilton, Monroe and Sequatchie counties. There are currently 53 active fires in the state. Residents in 10 to 15 homes near one fire in Hamilton County were evacuated on Wednesday. Another fire in Hamilton County and ones in Campbell and Sequatchie counties are threatening homes and property.

Gov. Bill Haslam has issued a regional burn ban on 51 counties the state, which includes every Tennessee county in the WATE 6 On Your Side coverage area.

Sheehan says weather forecasts don’t show any significant precipitation for the rest of the year. The Level III State of Emergency allows TEMA to engage personally and resources from state and federal partners.

Previous story: East Tennessee fires cause thick haze, unhealthy air quality

The McGhee Tyson Hilton Airport Hotel is serving as a check-in and staging area for hundreds of firefighters and other workers traveling to the Southeast to help battle ongoing wildfires.

Forty-seven fires are burning an estimated 80,000 acres in eight states, according to the Eastern Area Incident Management Team, with most of the activity occurring in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina.

“With the current drought situation in the south, it’s all hands on deck,” said Jim Grant, Incident Commander for the Eastern Area Incident Management Team. “We have crews from the West Coast, engines from Michigan and Wisconsin, and a lot of single resources from all over the country. It’s these kinds of partnerships among the various firefighting agencies that allow us to get the resources needed here quickly and efficiently.”

Alcoa hotel serves as staging area for crews battling wildfires across Southeast

Five incident management teams and more than 50 crews from across the country have deployed to help communities affected by the fires. A group was scheduled to arrive at McGhee Tyson Thursday afternoon.

More than 100 hot shots from as far as Oregon flew in to help fight the numerous wildfires burning in East Tennessee and nearby states. Fire officials said the East Tennessee-Virginia area is where their help is desperately needed right now.

“This is definitely an exceptional year to be bringing crews in late in the year,” said Keith Murphy, Operations Section Chief.

They will be going on a fire first thing Friday morning. The crews will battle wildfires in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

“Some fires with structures threatened, communities threatened,” said Catherine Koele with the Eastern Area Incident Management Team.

These extra bodies are desperately needed as local departments struggle.

“They are pretty much tapped out because they are fighting the fires that they can fight so there is not enough people to fight all the fires,” said Murphy.

Murphy said the hot shots are mobilized in Knoxville so they can be close to the East Tennessee-Virginia region, an area that has the most need right now. They have sent more than 300 firefighters already. If the demand stays high, about 100 more will be flying in each day.

“It’s an all hands on deck situation,” said Koele.

It is a tense situation fueled by dry wood and plants which are caused by an extreme drought. There is hope for some much needed rain.

“We will just keep an eye on the weather, keep an eye on the conditions and hopefully things will turn around here pretty quick,” said Koele.

This mobilization reminding people in this area to be careful during these dry conditions and to recognize the importance of following a burn ban.

“We can not afford more ignitions.” said Koele.

Additional support is not just flying into Knoxville. Sixty hand crews from Florida arrived in Chattanooga on Thursday to help with the fires in Southeast Tennessee.

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