Authorities are encouraging Madison County residents living near the boundary of Shenandoah National Park to evacuate as the Quaker Run Fire continues to jump established containment lines and expand.
It will be weeks before the blaze is contained, state officials said Sunday.
The fire had consumed nearly 2,500 acres of private, public and park land as of Sunday evening. Trails near the fire have been closed, power has been cut in central parts of the park and smoke has been spreading as far north as Strasburg, south as Charlottesville and east as Culpeper. Now people are being urged to leave their homes.
A local state of emergency has been declared in Madison County.
“As a precaution, Madison County Sheriff’s Office is encouraging residents north of 681 Finks Hollow Lane to evacuate,” the Virginia Department of Forestry announced Sunday evening.
The lane borders Strother Run northwest of the village of Syria, close to where the fire was ignited on Oct. 24.
The conflagration started as a 20-acre brush fire by Quaker Run Road. A fire line meant to deprive the blaze of fuel and stop it from expanding past a 1,600-acre footprint has failed in multiple areas, according to authorities on the ground.
“Firefighters have established containment lines around the entire perimeter,” the National Park Service said in a Sunday statement. “However fire has breached in a couple of areas.”
Crews on the ground have had to necessarily expand the containment line, the Virginia Department of Forestry said.
“Firefighters are pushing hard to stop the western spread of the fire,” the state agency said in an update issued Sunday evening. “Currently, no structures have been damaged and firefighters aim to maintain this.”
The rough and rocky terrain, intermittent wind and severe drought conditions in the region have made fighting the fire and keeping it within the fire line more difficult, according to authorities. Colder temperatures last week had helped to bring down the flashpoint of fuels, but warmer weather returned over the weekend.
Power lines into the Big Meadows area in the national park have been cut “for firefighter safety,” according to the park service.
High-voltage conductors have been known to ignite wildfires when downed and help spread existing fires when blazes reach them.
The National Park Service said that generators are providing power to certain parts of the Big Meadows area.
“Big Meadows Wayside, the visitor center, and the campground are open utilizing generators,” the federal agency said in a Sunday statement, adding, “Some visitor amenities may be impacted.”
Big Meadows Lodge, a major attraction in the area, officially closed for the season Sunday, a week before originally planned. A park representative told The Daily Progress on Saturday that guests with reservations were being told to turn back ahead of the weekend.
Trails near the fire have been closed to the public.
“The entire length of the Graves Mill Trail from the intersection of the Staunton River Trail to the Rapidan Fire Road, and the entire length of the Whilhite Wagon Trail will remain closed until further notice as firefighters continue efforts to suppress the Quaker Run Fire,” the National Park Service announced Saturday.
The Rapidan Tract of the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area has also been closed until further notice, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry.
Smoke is the primary concern in open areas of the park.
“Whiteoak Canyon and Old Rag Trails are open but at times are impacted by dense smoke which may reach UNHEALTHY to VERY UNHEALTHY levels,” the National Park Service said in a Sunday statement. “These are strenuous trails requiring prolonged heavy exertion. Smoke sensitive groups are advised to avoid these trails and everyone is encouraged to take precautions as conditions can change quickly.”
Smoke forecasts are worst in the Big Meadows area and near the town of Strasburg in Shenandoah County, about 60 miles away, according to the U.S. Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program. The air quality in Front Royal to the north, Charlottesville to the south and Culpeper to the east will also be affected by drifting smoke.
There are dozens on the scene of the Quaker Run Fire, including crews from the state Department of Forestry, the National Park Service, local career and volunteer fire departments, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and the Nature Conservancy. That number has fluctuated over the past week and a half, not necessarily increasing as the fire has grown. When the fire was less than 500 acres, there were more than 100 on the ground; before the fire jumped the fire line this weekend there were roughly 70.
Crews have been using helicopters for water drops and patrolling the perimeter of the blaze for any breaches of the fire line. When The Daily Progress asked the National Park Service as to whether additional resources would be coming in or if authorities had considered bringing in planes to drop fire retardant in the area, a spokeswoman deferred to the Virginia Department of Forestry, which did not immediately respond.
“We are connected nationally and additional resources are arriving daily,” National Park Service spokeswoman Claire Comer said via email.
It is still unclear how the fire started. Republican state Sen. Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania released a statement on Oct. 26 suggesting it was caused by a lightning strike in the area. The state Department of Forestry has said the cause is still under investigation and has emphasized that “escaped burning debris is the leading cause of wildfires in Virginia.”
Officials said Sunday they do not expect the fire to be fully under control for weeks.
"Once the fire is contained, firefighters will require two weeks or more to extinguish the fire completely," the Virginia Department of Forestry estimated Sunday evening.