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Volunteer firefighters successful in protecting homes from wildfire

UPPER TRACT, W.Va. — More than 4 dozen volunteer firefighters from Pendleton, Grant and Hardy counties have worked nonstop to keep the flames from the North Mountain Wildfire in the Monongahela National Forest away from homeowners.

The fire, which began near Upper Tract Sunday, had covered about 1,500 hundred acres by Wednesday afternoon.

Due to the fire, the U.S. Forest Service issued an emergency closure order late Wednesday for the area around the Smoke Hole Fire. The order is in effect for 120 days or until the termination of the order by the U.S. Forest Service.

All people are forbidden to enter the National Forest Lands located within the closure zones, unless otherwise authorized to do so by the U.S. Forest Service. The following areas are closed:

Redman Run Trail (#507) from the North Fork Mountain Trail (#501) to Smoke Hole Road (Grant County Road 23). National Forest System Lands (NFS) in Pendleton County between Highway 28/55, Pendleton County Road 23 to Eagle Rock. NFS lands north of Dry Hollow Creek. At the end of Dry Hollow Creek to the northeast boundary of Seneca Rocks Area. NFS land and Seneca Rocks Area boundary to the northwest boundary of NFS lands and Seneca Rocks on the Cheat/Potomac Ranger District of the Monongahela National Forest. Forest Road 79 is also closed to the public.

Upper Tract Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Alt said the efforts of volunteer firefighters have been successful.

“The guys and the girls have done a great job with the volunteer fire departments here to sustain it where we have it now,” Chief Alt told MetroNews.

Those crews worked all day Tuesday and into Tuesday night to keep the flames away from a home in Smoke Hole. Alt said the wildfire was only a few hundred feet away.

“We were able to put fire lines around that particular residential area and so far it’s held. I believe we have that pretty well secured,” Alt said.

The volunteer firefighters were the first to begin fighting the blaze Sunday. They’ve now been joined by crews from the U.S. Forest Service. Alt said the terrain in the area of Smoke Hole and the backside of Seneca Rocks is very challenging.

“We’re talking about rock cliffs, unstable terrain with rocks, downed timbers, the terrain in some places is 90 degrees in elevation,” Alt said.

The chief said it could take until Monday for the Forest Service to have the flames under control. Agency spokesman Bob Beanblossom confirmed that on MetroNews Talkline Wednesday.

“This will be a long-term event,” he said. “It is not threatening any structures at this time.  However, we do have personnel in place that are carefully monitoring any changes in fire behavior.”

As of Wednesday morning, Beanblossom said the fire was 20 percent contained, but more firefighting personnel and equipment, including a helicopter and bulldozers, to fight the flames were being moved along the fire lines throughout the day Wednesday.

More than 80 firefighters and forestry workers, from West Virginia and several other states, were helping with firefighting efforts.  Crews have moved into the Mountain State from Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Tennessee to join local volunteer firefighters from Franklin, Seneca Rocks, Upper Tract and Petersburg.

On Wednesday, the goal was for crews to hold and improve the existing fire line, build new line and go directly at the fire, where it was safe.

“We still will make good progress over the next few days despite the extremely dry conditions,” Beanblossom predicted.  The firefighters are working in cold temperatures and tough terrain.  “We just have to go a little slower and be a little safer in what we do.”

He said some precipitation, earlier this week, would have helped.  “We did not receive the snow that fell over much of West Virginia,” he said Wednesday following a system that put down rain and snow in other areas.

Chief Alt said local residents hope most of the forest reopens before deer hunting season later this month. He said eventually the forest may benefit from the fire.

“If that extends into the hunting season coming up in a couple weeks it will have substantial impact in the area,” the chief predicted. “But in the future though–it’s like any other controlled area–we’ll probably get some better wildlife, better undergrowth and so forth, so in the next couple years there will be some real good areas to be into.”

A management officer with the Monongahela National Forest said the wildfire is the largest in the Monongahela National Forest since the 1940s and 1950s.

One firefighter injury has been reported.

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