Storms could mean relief, risks for firefighters in North Georgia

Two storm systems could dump up to 4 inches of rain in far North Georgia by the end of the day Wednesday, meaning much-needed relief for wildfires that have torched thousands of acres in the North Georgia mountains.

Downpours are also good news in metro Atlanta, which broke a 132-year-old record dry spell Friday. It’s now been 42 days without rain in the area, Channel Action News reported.

WEATHER: Record-breaking streak without rain about to end

The storms, however, also could bring damaging winds, with gusts up to 55 mph.

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.

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

Minimal rain would hardly counteract those effects in areas where flames grow by the thousands each day, 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.”

Luckily, downpours are forecast for North Georgia.

Parts of northwest Georgia will 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.

RELATED: Where are the active fires?

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.

Still, they are hardly the most severe blazes in Georgia.

MORE PHOTOS: Scenes from North Georgia

The Rough Ridge fire spans the same 27,870 acres it did earlier last week, and containment increased from 75 percent to 87 percent in the Cohutta Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest — both good signs — the U.S. Forest Service reported Monday.

RELATED: North Georgia crews fighting monotony along with wildfires

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 spanned 24,725 acres Monday about 10 miles north of Clayton in northeast Georgia and was 45 percent contained. 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.

RELATED: Forest fires can be friends as well as foes

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.

Following drought-related disaster declarations in 22 Georgia counties, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced loans are available to businesses taking a substantial financial hit due to the drought. Those businesses can apply through June 26, 2017.

Local officials have said the effects of the drought are wide-reaching, and the risk of wildfires is among the most severe. In metro Atlanta, as with counties throughout Georgia, stiff new watering restrictions took effect Nov. 17.

MAP: Georgia’s drought and where water restrictions apply

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

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