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Rain expected - at last - in drought-stricken Georgia

Precipitation to break record dry spell and help extinguish wildfires

Georgia’s record-shattering dry spell is about to come to an end.

Downpours were expected to begin Monday night in drought-stricken metro Atlanta, which has gone more than a month without rain. The precipitation is expected to dump up to four inches of rain on North Georgia. Fires raging there for weeks have charred tens of thousands of acres of forest land.

But while the rain could provide some badly-needed relief, high winds also in the forecast might hinder efforts to extinguish the fires completely.

Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett said high winds act as accelerants for wildfires, “giving them what they need to move faster and burn hotter.”

Minimal rain would hardly counteract those effects in areas where flames have been rapidly gobbling up thousands of acres, such as Rabun County’s Rock Mountain.

“Given our current drought, if we don’t get significant rain, we could be right back where we are today within a few days or a week,” Burnett said. “We do not want anyone to think we are out of the woods with fire danger if we get just a little rain this week.”

A high wind warning, issued Monday morning for Dade, Fannin, Walker and Lumpkin counties, goes into effect at 4 p.m. Monday and lasts through 7 a.m. Tuesday. Those areas could get sustained winds of at least 35 mph and gusts of at least 50 mph, forecasters said.

A Thirsty State

Still, the rainfall snaps a 42-day streak of dry days in Atlanta. The last measurable rainfall was Oct. 16. The previous dry spell was in 1884, when the city remained dry for 39 consecutive days.

Earlier this month, Gov. Nathan Deal ratcheted up a drought declaration in 52 counties, most in metro Atlanta and North Georgia. That translates into strict new water use restrictions in those areas and evokes the devastating 2007 drought that wreaked havoc on the state’s big-dollar agricultural industry.

The new drought restrictions took effect Nov. 17 and limit outdoor watering to two days a week on an odd-even schedule. They also turn off the spigot for outdoor fountains, car washes or power washing of homes.

Forecasters cautioned that the rain, while welcome, would do little to alleviate the drought. Only more rain would do that, they said.

Rainfall is supposed to arrive in metro Atlanta overnight, forecasters said.

Parts of northwest Georgia were expected to get the first round of heavy showers by 10 p.m. Monday, Channel 2 meteorologist Brian Monahan said. Then by 3 a.m. Tuesday, a diagonal line of heavy downpours will stretch from LaGrange to Blairsville.

In areas of Fannin and Rabun counties, where the largest active fires in the state are burning, there is a 30 percent chance of rain Monday, the National Weather Service reported. Those chances will increase to 40 percent in Fannin and 90 percent in Rabun on Tuesday before both counties get a 100 percent rain chance Wednesday.

“We are prepared for today’s wind event. We’re monitoring recent fires for potential re-burns and will be responding to any new fires as quickly as possible,” Burnett said.

Fires Still Burning

Authorities took about 112 wildfire calls from Friday to Sunday, and eight were still active Monday. There were seven in metro Atlanta, each burning less than five acres and all contained by Monday, Burnett said.

Metro fires torched an acre Sunday in Henry County, one acre in Forsyth County Saturday and another in Forsyth on Sunday. They ripped through six acres in three different Fulton County fires Friday through Sunday and burned two acres in Gwinnett County on Sunday.

The largest blazes in the though are burning on federal lands throughout the Southeast. In North Georgia alone, they have burned through some 71 square miles, more than the size of Washington D.C. Firefighters there - many from out of state - have been slowly gaining control of those blazes,

In Georgia, the Rough Ridge fire - burning in the Cohutta Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest - spans the same 27,870 acres it did earlier last week. Firefighters had now contained 87 percent of the blaze, up from 75 percent.

The blaze is expected to be completely contained by Wednesday, unlike the fire in Rabun that is expected to burn well into December.

The Rock Mountain blaze about 10 miles north of Clayton in northeast Georgia was 45 percent contained on Monday. It spanned some 24,725 acres. No evacuations have been ordered in the area, but 142 homes near Bettys Creek and Patterson Gap roads stayed on standby Monday.

Crews used seven helicopters, four water tankers and three bulldozers, and nearly doubled the number of 51 fire engines.

By Monday, crews finished efforts to light smaller fires and burn out fuel such as vegetation and leaves before the larger blaze could spread.

“Right now we’ve put all the fire on the ground that we’re going to put on the ground,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Tom Stokesberry said.

Officials instead prepared contingency plans to find safe shelter for firefighters when wind and rain start.

Up from 511 workers, more than 650 people worked to help contain the Rock Mountain fire Monday, Stokesberry said.

Officials worried for their safety, given the threat of damaging wind gusts.

“Fire-weakened trees can fall unexpectedly and there are documented cases where these trees, also known as ‘snags,’ have caused serious injury or death,” the U.S. Forest Service said in an update Monday.

One person died and one was injured in a fire in Greene County last week, Burnett said. She said she didn’t know the name of the victim or the condition of the person injured in the blaze.

In another fire last week in Meriwether County, a landowner accused of illegally burning materials was critically injured. That person’s condition was not known.

No firefighters were injured in either blaze.

The metro area has avoided the worst of the wildfires and more frequently dealt with smoke and poor air quality.

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