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Wildfire penetrates deeper into Shenandoah National Park

The Quaker Run Fire has now consumed hundreds of acres within Shenandoah National Park as it continues to break through points in the fire line.

The blaze had consumed roughly 2,800 acres of public, private and park land as of Monday evening, 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.

To date, no residences or other structures have been damaged. However, residents living near the village of Syria in Madison County where the fire began on Oct. 24 have been urged to evacuate, trails near the flames have been closed and power into the Big Meadows area within the park has been cut.

"The fire is in the central part of the park near the eastern boundary," the National Park Service said in a Monday statement.

The federal agency is working with the Virginia Department of Forestry as part of a "unified command" trying to control the blaze. Both agencies said Monday they 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.

There are about 70 personnel combined from the Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Madison County volunteer responders working the fire, Swift-Turner said.

Two helicopters are also employed, conducting water drops and surveying the perimeter of the conflagration, Swift-Turner said.

Residents who were preparing to evacuate spoke with The Daily Progress over the weekend 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.

He did, however, say, "Firefighters are making good progress towards completing firelines to cut this expansion off and encircle the fire again."

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.

Also on Sunday, Big Meadows Lodge within the park officially closed for the season, a week before originally planned. A park representative told The Daily Progress 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 now covering several corners of the park and nearby Madison County.

"Smoke is heaviest in the communities of Syria and Madison, which are closest to the fire, and in the central portion of the Park near Big Meadows, Whiteoak, and Old Rag," the National Park Service said in its Monday statement. "Smoke typically settles into low lying areas in the evening and overnight, remains heavy in those areas in the morning and lifts out in early afternoon. Smoke impacts at Big Meadows are usually most noticeable in early afternoon as the smoke is lifting or in the evening when smoke begins to settle. Hikers are encouraged to avoid the central part of the park."

While Whiteoak Canyon and Old Rag trails remain open, the park service has encouraged hikers to take precautions or outright avoid them, given the air quality and the intensity of the two trails.

Smoke from the Quaker Run Fire has been drifting as far afield as Strasburg to the north, Culpeper to the east and Charlottesville to the south, according to the U.S. Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program.

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 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.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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