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Firefighters battling 'hot spots' from woods blaze near Whitetail

April 07, 2010|By DAN DEARTH
  • A water bomber airplane from Moshannon Air Tanker Base at Mid State Airport in Clearfield County, Pa., drops a load of 800 gallons of water Wednesday on a mountain fire off Blairs Valley Road across from Whitetail Resort.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer,

Remote location hampered firefighting

MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry personnel were continuing to fight hot spots Thursday morning left over from a forest fire that burned about 45 wooded acres off Blairs Valley Road in Franklin County on Wednesday.

"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of hot spots," but the fire remained contained, Dusty Stoner, chief of MMP&W Volunteer Fire Co., said at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire started Wednesday morning on Claylick Mountain and was reported to be contained at about 6 p.m., according to a spokesman for an eight-county regional task force that was assisting local agencies in battling the blaze.

Duane Hagelgans, spokesman for the South Central Task Force, said late Wednesday afternoon that the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources would take local firefighters off the mountain by 8 p.m. and replace them with specialized units to fight the fire at night.

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Two of those units were on the mountain already and two would come later, he said.

All-terrain vehicle operators began shuttling local units off the mountain shortly after 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

About 110 firefighters from 16 companies in Franklin, Fulton and Adams counties in Pennsylvania, and from Washington and Frederick counties in Maryland used airplanes, leaf blowers, rakes and ATVs to battle the blaze that by 4:10 p.m. had moved across Claylick Mountain toward Kasiesville, Pa.

The fire was about 3 to 4 acres wide by late afternoon, fire officials said.

There were no reports of injuries and no homes were endangered as of Wednesday evening.

The Red Cross opened a shelter at Tuscarora Senior Activity Center in Mercersburg, Pa., where local residents could evacuate if needed.

"We're just being proactive right now," said Allen White, emergency services director for the Red Cross of Franklin County. "That's just in case they want to do (evacuations)."

White said the Red Cross also had a nurse at the site and would provide cots if firefighters wanted to rest.

Firefighters were hampered by winds and the rocky terrain, which made it difficult for them to get to the fire, said Jeff Main, captain of MMP&W Volunteer Fire Co. of Mercersburg. A helicopter took commanders up to find the best routes with which to attack the fire.

Main said the company got the fire call at about 10:30 a.m., and when firefighters arrived on the scene they found a rapid-moving fire that encompassed about 20 acres on Claylick Mountain.

Firefighters were hoping for rain to help their efforts, but no precipitation was expected to move into the area until about 4 a.m., Main said.

He said local firefighters would return to the scene this morning.

Blairs Valley Road was closed in the area of the fire. Firefighters had set up a staging area at the entrance to Whitetail Resort.

Stoner said the remote location made it difficult for firefighters to get water to the blaze, and high winds were causing the fire to spread.

Flames as high as 20 feet shot up in some places, Stoner said.

Two Air Tractor single-propeller aircraft that were dropping water on the blaze had to stop at nightfall.

The planes are similar to those used for agricultural spraying, said Greg Larsen, Washington County Airport's business development manager.

"The airplanes are landing here, replenishing their water supply with our fire equipment, and off they go," Larsen said.

The planes were picking up about 800 gallons of water each time and returning to refill about every 20 minutes, Larsen said.

Pennsylvania Assistant District Forester Bryan Wilford said the planes were flown in from Moshannon Tanker Base in Clearfield County, Pa. The airplanes are owned by a private company that contracts with the state, Wilford said.

Mary Smith, who lives on Hunter Road, said Hunter Road residents were being told to prepare in case they needed to evacuate the area.

Smith said smoke was visible from her house and a helicopter had flown over the fire. When the wind blew, the smoke intensified, Smith said.

The blaze started on the opposite side of Blairs Valley Road from Whitetail Resort, said Don MacAskill, the resort's general manager.

He said Whitetail staff helped fight the fire by providing transportation and water, and helped fight the fire with hand pumps.

Whitetail's ski resort is closed for the season, but its golf course is open, MacAskill said.

The fire is in the same area as one that burned about 4 acres of woods last Thursday.

Staff writer Heather Keels and photographer Kevin G. Gilbert contributed to this story.

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