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Crews battle Catawba Mountain brush fires

Crews battle Catawba Mountain brush fires

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Firefighting crews from multiple jurisdictions battled a series of rapidly expanding brush fires Sunday afternoon along Virginia 311 (Catawba Valley Drive) toward the crest of Catawba Mountain.

Several small wildland fires were first reported at 3:40 p.m. along the side of the highway towards the Catawba Mountain crest, where Va. 311 crosses the Appalachian Trail and a parking lot used to access McAfee Knob, according to a news release from the Roanoke County Fire & Rescue Department.

The fires spread rapidly due to the windy and dry conditions. No cause, however, has been determined yet.

“There can be a wide range of causes. It doesn’t take much to get these going,” Brian Clingenpeel, the Roanoke County Fire and Rescue Department’s community outreach coordinator, said.

Fire officials said most of the fire is on federal land and that the U.S. Forest Service estimates the size of the burn at 325 acres.

Catawba Valley Drive was closed at Absalom Smith Road until 11 p.m. Sunday. Authorities asked motorists to avoid that area so emergency vehicles could have unobstructed access.

Also, the Appalachian Trail toward the summit of McAfee Knob was evacuated. Hikers were also asked to avoid this area.

Clingenpeel said that he wasn’t sure how many hikers were in the McAfee Knob area earlier Sunday, but he said there were likely more than few.

“It was a beautiful day, so I’m guessing there were quite a few up there,” he said.

The Appalachian Trail from the parking lot at the top of Catawba Mountain out to McAfee Knob remains closed, according to a news release from the Roanoke County Fire and Rescue Department.

Along with nearly every station from Roanoke County, units from Salem, Elliston, Virginia Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service were on the scene Sunday. Fire officials said there are approximately 80 personnel fighting the fire.

Bulldozers and a helicopter were being used to try to stop the fire, according to the news release.

Helicopter crews used water scooped from nearby creeks and ponds to dump on the burns, Clingenpeel said.

Before 7 p.m., smoke from the blazes was still widely visible from the area around Catawba Valley Drive just north of Interstate 81.

The U.S. Forest Service was handling most firefighting duties overnight.

Some structures were threatened during the early stages of the fire, but those structures were protected, fire officials said. There are currently no structures threatened, they said.

No injuries have been reported.

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