Wildfire, drought in North Ga. force closures of trails, restrictions of campfires

By David Pendered

Wildfires have forced the closure of three trails and a trailhead parking lot on federal land in north Georgia, according to the U.S. Forest Service. On Friday, the state joined the federal government in restricting fires and campfires at wildness areas in north and central Georgia.

Arkaquah Trail

A wildfire along the Arkaquah Trail forced the U.S. Forest Service to close a portion of the trail Thursday, at a site 1.5 miles west of the Brasstown Bald Visitor Center. The trail is regarded as one of the toughest in north Georgia, with an elevation gain of 7,300 feet over an 11.5 mile out-and-back trail. Credit: rootsrated.com

The situation is unfolding as portions of Georgia have recorded their driest 60-day periods on record, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

The rapid expansion of drought conditions is evident in a series of maps that show levels of exceptional and severe drought on Oct. 25, compared to the start of the water year on Sept. 27. The expansion compared to one year ago is even more dramatic.

Likewise, streams are flowing at rates far below historic averages. An entire swath of the state is experiencing a severe hydrology drought. The area stretches from Georgia’s northern boundary south to the corner of Alabama and Florida, and east to the Atlantic Ocean, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey.

On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service closed a section of the Arkaquah Trail near Chimneytop Mountain. The fire is located 1.5 miles west of the Brasstown Bald Visitor Center. The trail is temporarily closed until further notice to protect the public and firefighters.

River flows

Streams through much of Georgia are flowing at rates far below historic averages. Credit: U.S. Geologic Survey

On Oct. 17, in the Cohutta Wilderness, a fire along the Rough Ridge Trail prompted the closure of the Three Forks trailhead parking lot and a section of the East Cowpen trail, to the junction with Panther Creek trail. A section of the Rough Ridge Trail was previously closed because of the fire.

A wildfire closed another north Georgia trail for the first half of October. From Oct. 5 to Oct. 18, the Strawberry Mountain section of the Pinhoti Trail was closed between West Armuchee Road and East Armuchee Road.

Of note, the Pinhoti Trail is especially significant in the bragging rights over the Appalachian Trail. If the federal government designates the Pinhoti Trail as part of the AT, the southern terminus of the AT would move from Springer Mountain, in Georgia, to Flagg Mountain, in Alabama, according to a report on blog.al.com.

The forestry service announced Oct. 14 that fire restrictions are in place for both the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests. The restrictions are set to expire Dec. 31.

Fires are allowed in the national forests. But they must be confined to the metal fire rings in developed campsites. The ban on other fires is clear:

  • “Building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire outside of developed recreation areas is prohibited.”
drought map, 10:25:16

Extreme and severe drought conditions are expanding as Georgia is in its driest 60-day period on record. Credit: National Drought Mitigation Center

Restrictions are more stringent on state land, according to provisions released Friday afternoon by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

A total ban on fires and campfires is now in place at Wildlife Management Areas in north and central Georgia.

“Due to the lingering and continued drought conditions, there is elevated risk of wildfire in north and central Georgia,” John Bowers, Chief of Wildlife Resources Division Game Management,” said in a statement released Friday afternoon.

“Suspending the use of campfires on WMAs minimizes the risk of dangerous wildfires that threaten public safety and our forest resources,” Bowers said. “This action is consistent with the policy recently established for National Forest Lands by the USDA Forest Service and is supported by the Georgia Forestry Commission.”

drought map 9:27:16

Drought conditions were not as pervasive on Sept. 27 as they are now. Credit: National Drought Mitigation Center

drought map 10:27:15

This map shows that only mild drought conditions affected a comparatively small part of Georgia on Oct. 27, 2015. Credit: National Drought Mitigation Center

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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