Spreading forest fires prompted Gov. Matt Bevin to declare a statewide emergency Thursday as tired crews continued to battle blazes and the Kentucky National Guard dispatched helicopters to dump water on fires in steep terrain.
Bevin’s emergency declaration made greater state resources available to help battle fires.
Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett opened the state’s emergency operation center in Frankfort to support firefighting work.
Bevin cautioned Kentuckians to be careful not to cause more fires as tinder-dry conditions persist.
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“As dry conditions remain throughout Kentucky, we urge all citizens to use extreme caution during outdoor activities and refrain from outdoor burning,” Bevin said.
Firefighters have responded to more than 60 fires in about 20 counties since Monday, most of them in southeastern and northeastern Kentucky, according to the state Division of Forestry.
Fires had burned more than 5,100 acres. The totals did not include new fires reported Thursday as the problem continued to spread.
“The fires are getting bigger,” said Jennifer Turner, a spokeswoman for the Division of Forestry.
Crews had created fire breaks around some blazes, but others had not been contained. Windy conditions and low humidity were not helping.
There was a forecast for rain in some areas where fires were burning, but the concern was that it wouldn’t be enough to curb the blazes.
Absent substantial rain, fire crews will have to gut it out on the ground to contain the blazes, officials said.
The state’s mobilization is projected to stretch well into next week, Turner said.
The Guard dispatched two UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters equipped with 600-gallon buckets and an LUH-72 Lakota, which will help direct firefighting efforts, Maj. Steve Martin said in a news release.
Turner said that as of Thursday afternoon, the helicopters had dropped eight loads of water on fires on Pine Mountain in Harlan and Letcher counties.
Fire crews have been stretched thin this week because there are so many blazes.
Allen Luttrell, commissioner of the Department for Natural Resources Commissioner, said Thursday that employees who usually do mine-safety and mine-reclamation work had been pressed into service to help the Division of Forestry.
And in another development, the state fire commission will provide 50 additional firefighters for the Division of Forestry to begin training Friday to go onto the fire lines, Turner said.
In Pike County, officials dismissed classes at noon Wednesday at Shelby Valley High School and at Valley and Dorton elementary schools because of forest fires.
Classes were canceled again Thursday at the three schools, which have a total of 1,800 students.
In Harlan County, Judge-Executive Dan Mosley declared a local state of emergency Wednesday as several fires, including a large one on Pine Mountain, threatened homes in places.
Mosley said fires had destroyed some outbuildings and an abandoned house, but firefighters had sprayed water to save occupied houses.
“You can’t see 50 feet in front of you in some places” because of smoke, Mosley said.
A few people had left their homes while firefighters battled nearby blazes, but had been able to return later, Mosley said.
Mosley said authorities told him one large blaze was the result of arson. He urged anyone with information on suspects to contact police.
“Their actions are endangering the lives of many, many people,” Mosley said of people who intentionally start fires.
In Bell County, crews worked to contain a large fire at Pine Mountain State Resort Park.
Some workers used blowers to push leaves away from houses to reduce fuel, while members of the Pineville Fire Department used a pumper truck to spray water in an effort to keep the fire from spreading over the top of a mountain toward the city.
Lt. Gerald Baker said conditions can change quickly in fighting forest fires. A ravine can create a chimney effect, and the wind can pick up, fanning the fire.
“If it speeds up, it’s not good for us,” Baker said.
The Division of Forestry said fall fire restrictions prohibit burning between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. within 150 feet of woods.
In addition, these counties had put burn bans in place, the agency said: Jackson, Barren, Clay, Fleming, Leslie, Knott, Pike, Perry, Monroe, McCreary, Whitley, Laurel, Harlan, Breathitt, Floyd and Owsley.