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Fire burns more than 1,000 acres in Montvale area

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By The Staff

High winds helped fan the flames of numerous fires in Bedford County this weekend.

For the second time in two years, the Montvale area saw more than 1,000 acres of land involved in a wildland fire that threatened homes in the area and forced evacuations of area residents.

Doug Eggleston, emergency services director of the Historic Virginia Chapter of the American Red Cross, said he was contacted about 9 a.m. Sunday about the need to set up an evacuation shelter in the Montvale area. He said at that time it was thought that as many as 200 people might need help.

By 10:30 a.m. the shelter location was established at Montvale Elementary School and representatives from the Department of Social Services, the Bedford County Sheriff's Office and the school were joining with Red Cross workers to operate the shelter.

Cots, blankets and other items were brought in, if needed, and cafeteria staff from the school were working to prepare food for those who sought shelter at the school.

By mid-afternoon about 35 people had registered at the school. Many were coming in to register, but had other places to stay for the night if needed. The power went out at the school and Eggleston made plans to move the few families that might need shelter to a local motel.

One of those seeking shelter had left her medicine at home when evacuated. Arrangements were made to help her get that medicine.

The question of whether pets could be brought to the shelter also came up. Bedford County doesn't currently have an established plan for sheltering pets, but one local kennel operator came by and offered to house pets during the evacuation.

"It's pretty much up to the individuals to take care of their animals on their own," Eggleston said.

Loretta Reaves was among those who showed up at the shelter needing a place for her pets to stay. She praised the local kennel worker who showed up and took her dogs.

Reaves and her family live off Blackhorse Gap Road. She said she was told just before 9 a.m. that she needed to evacuate. Initially they were given 15 minutes to leave, but even that time was cut short.

"They said we had to go now," Reaves explained. "We just left everything in the house."

Including her medicine. Staff at the shelter made arrangements to go and get her some medicine until she could return home.

As she waited for word about the fire, Reaves said she felt empty, not knowing what was happening. A chaplain with the Bedford County Fire and Rescue sat next to her. "I'm just sitting here waiting for someone to come and say it's gone," she said of the fire.

Annette Childress also went to the shelter. Though her home wasn't in the line of the fire, she had lost power and was told it could be several days before it would be restored.

She would have stayed home, had it not been for her concern for her two-month old son Connor. She also had first-hand knowledge of the volunteers working to help contain the fire. Her husband is a firefighter with the Montvale Fire Department and was part of the crew working Sunday at the fire.

Randy Sutton, a park ranger with the National Park Service, said the fire was called in about 3:30 p.m. Saturday. He said it had been confirmed that it had been started as the result of an ATV that was riding on restricted land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Sutton said the ATV had gotten stuck. In just a matter of minutes the fire had grown to more than two acres. Low humidity and high winds helped fan the blaze.

On Sunday the fire had burned about 500 acres and by Tuesday morning that had doubled having consumed more than 1,200. More than 199 firefighters, including those from other agencies had joined in to work at the blaze. High winds kept air support grounded on Sunday, but by Monday helicopters were brought in to help drop water.

Sutton said the effort to fight the fire was multi-jurisdictional. Firefighters from the National Forest Service, the Virginia Department of Forestry, the U. S. Park Service and Botetourt County were at work Monday morning. Additional crews came in Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina as well as other parts of Virginia, according to Glen Stapelton, the fire officer for the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forests.

The gusting winds limited much of Sunday's effort to making sure structures weren't affected by the fire, and to contain the fire as much as possible. The goal was to establish barriers that the fire couldn't cross and to reduce the fuel for the fire.

Evacuations took place on several roads including Black Horse Gap Road, Tomahawk Lane, Lonesome Pine Drive and Dakota Lane. Door-to-door visits were made and the Reverse 911 system was also used to notify residents of the fire and evacuations.

The Montvale fire was one of just many occurring Sunday in the county. At least 11 other fires were reported.

"It's definitely hard work," stated Janet Blankenship, recruitment and retention specialist with Bedford County Fire and Rescue Services, adding that many of those responding worked throughout the night Saturday without sleep. Many of those were set to return to work the fire later on Sunday.

She praised the work of the firefighters. "They're going to get out there and protect their community," Blankenship said.

By Monday morning, a fire line had been established along the fire's southern side and Stapleton said the plan of attack was to extend firelines on the east and west sides to contain it. Firefighters set back fires along the south side of the Appalachian trial, near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The back fires create a fire break by denying the fire the fuel it needs to advance. Doug Mattox, a veteran firefighter who said he had just celebrated his 40th birthday for the 34th time, was supervising a Virginia Department of Forestry crew doing some of this work. He said that the back fire is primarily burning leaf litter and won't kill many trees.

An effort was underway Tuesday, according to Blankenship to close off the head of the fire by extending a fireline from the Parkway's Montvale Overlook, down the side of the mountain. She said that they were hoping that predicted rain would hold off long enough to finish this work. Rain is not necessarily their friend. Depending on how much falls, it could end up hampering their efforts by making the steep slopes slippery.

According to Stapleton, charges are pending against the 16-year old who was operating the ATV blamed for starting the fire. As the incident happened on national forest property, it will be up to the U. S. Forest Service to file charges, according to Major Ricky Gardner of the Bedford County Sheriff's Office.

Stapleton said that there are designated trails for ATVs. He said that the possibility of an ATV triggering a wildland fire is one of the reasons why they set up these trails, while banning them from other areas.

Gardner agreed.

"This is a perfect example of why you don't want people doing it," he commented.

As of Tuesday morning, no structures had been lost to the fire, nor had anyone been injured.

On Monday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth of Virginia, directing state agencies to take all necessary actions to aid in the response to multiple wildfires that have broken out in numerous areas across the Commonwealth.

A declaration of emergency allows the Governor to immediately deploy state personnel, equipment, and other emergency response resources, and to coordinate state and local response to the event.

In addition, the Governor has authorized the activation of Virginia National Guard personnel and equipment to assist with fighting wildfires.

The Virginia Department of Forestry reported that more than 740 firefighters spent Sunday battling some 200 wildland fires that burned nearly 6,000 acres in Virginia. Wind gusts reached as much as 75 miles per hour, snapping power lines that sparked at least 18 of the blazes.

"These numbers are unheard of in Virginia —a record-setter for sure," said John Miller, Virginia Department of Forestry's director of resource protection.