The commonwealth of Virginia is under a state of emergency and National Guard troops have been deployed to the scene of the Quaker Run Fire as the blaze continues to jump fire lines and spread into Shenandoah National Park.
What started as a 20-acre brush fire near the village of Syria in Madison County on Oct. 24 has now consumed roughly 2,800 acres of public, private and park land as of Tuesday morning, according to the National Park Service. That total includes roughly 670 acres within Shenandoah.
The area burned is now more than 50% larger than the original 1,600-acre containment zone officials had established to limit the fire’s spread. Rocky terrain, intermittent winds and drought conditions have not helped. Officials estimate it will be weeks before the fire is completely under control.
Nearby residents have been urged to evacuate, power has been cut to central parts of the park and trails near the fire have been closed.
“The anticipated effects of this situation constitute a disaster,” reads Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order declaring a state of emergency and activating the National Guard.
Flight crews are now providing aerial fire suppression in Madison County with the assistance of two Black Hawk helicopters “equipped with massive water buckets,” the National Guard said in a statement Tuesday morning shortly after the activation order was given.
The National Park Service also implemented a burn ban for all of Shenandoah Tuesday morning. Almost all of the Shenandoah Valley is in a severe drought due to lack of rainfall; the area is more than 15 inches short of the annual average.
“Building, attending, maintaining, or using an open fire anywhere within the boundaries of the Park is prohibited,” the National Park Service said in a statement. “The ban will remain in effect until conditions improve with significant rain or snow over time, decreasing the fire hazard.”
That ban includes all wood, charcoal, coal or other solid-fuel open fires as well as fires in grates, grills, rings or pits in campgrounds, picnic areas, shelters or huts, the park service said.
All streams in the park have been closed to fishing since August due to the low water levels and high water temperatures.
Graves Mill and Wilhite Wagon trails in the central part of the park where the fire is spreading remain closed. The Rapidan Tract of the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area has also been closed until further notice. While Whiteoak Canyon and Old Rag trails remain open, the park service has encouraged hikers to take precautions or outright avoid them, given the dense smoke, poor air quality and intensity of the two trails.
Power into the Big Meadows area of the park was cut over the weekend “for firefighter safety” and remains out. High-voltage conductors have been known to ignite wildfires when downed and help spread existing fires when blazes reach them. Generators are operating to keep some services in the Big Meadows area open, including the visitor center and campground, the park service has said.
While no residences or structures have been damaged by the fire to date, the Virginia Department of Forestry announced on Sunday that the Madison County Sheriff’s Office was encouraging residents living north of 681 Finks Hollow Lane in Madison County to evacuate.
The state of emergency declared Tuesday morning grants Youngkin the power to order and direct evacuations.
“Violations of any order to citizens to evacuate shall constitute a violation of this Executive Order and are punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor,” the order reads.
It also authorizes a maximum of $2.75 million for “state and local government mission assignments and state response and recovery operations authorized and coordinated through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.” Included in that authorization is $1.5 million for the Department of Military Affairs.
The order also authorizes the heads of executive branch agencies in the state to waive requirements or regulations and enter into contracts without regard to normal procedures or formalities, and without regard to application or permit fees or royalties. All waivers issued by agencies must be posted on their websites, the order says.
The National Guard on Tuesday joined the roughly 70 personnel who are working to contain the blaze, including crews from from the Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Madison County volunteer responders. For more than a week, the National Park Service and Virginia Department of Forestry have been operating a “unified command” at the fire. Both agencies have been providing updates on the fire online and via social media, but nearby residents have complained that they are often few and far between — especially as the fire continues to jump the fire line and spread.
The Department of Forestry said crews are working to address multiple breaches of the established fire line.
“The fire is currently expanding northwest across an area that is part Rapidan Wildlife Management Area and part Shenandoah National Park,” Cory Swift-Turner, a spokesman with the Virginia Department of Forestry, told The Daily Progress on Monday.
Residents who were preparing to evacuate over the weekend spoke with The Daily Progress and questioned why authorities are not employing additional resources, specifically referencing the Rocky Mount Fire of 2016. By the time that fire had covered 2,000 acres, crews were already employing a plane in addition to helicopters and fire engines to battle the blaze.
“At this time there are not plans to use planes for this fire,” Swift-Turner said, without providing a reason why.
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 near Syria. 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 have said 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.
Youngkin’s executive order on Tuesday also references the Tuggles Gap Fire in Patrick County.
That blaze had consumed about 500 acres and was 10% contained as of Tuesday morning, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry.