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Wildfires in Central Virginia, Shenandoah Valley burn more than 7,500 acres in less than 24 hours

Virginia state and local firefighting forces are working to control more than 100 wildfires that had scorched 7,500-plus acres as of Thursday, largely in Central Virginia and the neighboring Shenandoah Valley.

The fires have been fueled by high winds and low humidity in the area. And while investigations are still underway into the causes of the fires, witnesses and first responders at multiple scenes told The Daily Progress that power lines downed by the high winds were to blame for at least some of the blazes.

Dominion Energy reported hundreds without power just in Albemarle County on Wednesday. Most of those households had their power restored by Thursday afternoon, according to the public utility.

In Madison County to the north, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative announced it had purposefully cut power to certain communities in order to prevent downed lines from starting or spreading fires. One of those communities was the village of Syria, the epicenter of last year’s Quaker Run Fire, which burned through nearly 4,000 acres of public, private and Shenandoah National Park land over the course of three-plus weeks before it was declared fully extinguished in mid-November.

The recent fires have prompted evacuations and declarations of local states of emergency across Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.

“A local declaration allows our community to access resources during a public safety emergency, such as this,” Albemarle County said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Career and volunteer firefighters in Albemarle responded to 19 brush fires between noon and 8 p.m. Wednesday.

“While most of these were small incidents, three evolved into major working incidents,” the county said in a report issued Thursday afternoon.

Those three include:

■ Taylors Gap: Firefighters were dispatched to Taylors Gap just west of Charlottesville around 1:23 p.m. Wednesday. The fire had burned through 250 acres and was 50% contained by Thursday afternoon. It is important to note that “contained” means a fire is restricted to a certain area and cannot spread farther; it does not mean “extinguished.” The Taylors Gap Fire had destroyed two outbuildings as of Thursday afternoon, both declared “total losses” by Albemarle County Fire Rescue. While no residential structures had been affected, between 15 and 20 residences were under threat and successfully spared any damage thanks to firefighting crews, the county said. An evacuation alert was sent to residents living on Taylors Gap Road and side roads between Dick Woods and Blandemar roads Wednesday afternoon. That alert was lifted around midnight after it was determined the properties were no longer threatened. The county fire marshal’s office has yet to determine what ignited the Taylors Gap Fire.

■ Blackberry Hill: Firefighters were dispatched to the Blackberry Hill area in northwest Albemarle around 1:40 p.m. Wednesday. The fire affected roughly 20 acres before it was declared 100% contained by 7:37 p.m. that night. The fire destroyed a single shed. No residential structures were affected. The cause of the fire was determined to be an open-air burn in violation of the law. The property owner who set the fire has been charged, according to the county.

■ And Piney Mountain: Firefighting crews were dispatched around 3:04 p.m. to the scene of the Piney Mountain Fire north of Charlottesville off U.S. 29. That blaze burned through roughly 180 acres before it was declared fully contained by 2 a.m. Thursday. Another shed was declared a “total loss. No residential structures were damaged. Like the Taylors Gap Fire, the Piney Mountain Fire remains under investigation; no cause has yet been determined.

While multiple outbuildings were destroyed in the fires, Albemarle County officials noted that no injuries had been reported as of Thursday afternoon and that crews were working to get the remaining blazes under control.

More extensive structural damage was reported in Madison County, where a fire breached the town of Madison’s limits and scorched multiple buildings, completely destroying a hockey rink.

According to Madison County Volunteer Fire Company Chief Troy Coppage, the fires there were the result of power lines downed by Wednesday’s high winds.

In Louisa County to the east, a local state of emergency was declared after brush fires were reported near West Old Mountain, Shannon Hill and Yanceyville roads near the community of Yanceyville. An emergency shelter was opened and residents were urged to evacuate. The fires were declared completely contained and residents were allowed to return home by midnight.

The fires in the Shenandoah Valley have been particularly large.

One brushfire sparked near the town of Luray Wednesday afternoon entered Shenandoah National Park later that day and had burned more than 450 acres by Thursday afternoon. As of press time, state authorities were reporting the blaze was only 10% contained.

The National Park Service announced several closures in the affected area:

■ Skyline Drive between Thornton Gap and Mathews Arm.

■ Jeremy’s Run Trail and the Appalachian Trail from Mathews Arm to Beahms Gap.

■ And Byrd’s Nest Shelter No. 4.

As a result of the fires, Luray High School has been designated an evacuation shelter for the Red Cross and Page County Public Schools has closed all schools and offices.

As conditions remain dry and dangerous ahead of this weekend’s forecast rain, fire officials in Virginia are urging residents:

■ Report any active fire to 911.

■ Do not burn.

■ Avoid all fire scenes.

■ Protect yourself from smoky conditions by remaining indoors or wearing a mask or scarf while outside.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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