The smell of smoke in Forsyth County hung heavy in the air beginning Wednesday morning as fires in north Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina continued to rage.
The air was thick throughout metro Atlanta and the city proper, largely due to fires in Fannin County, according to Shawn Alexander, district ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission.
Though no large brush fires have been reported in Forsyth County, Fire Department Division Chief Jason Shivers said the department has received numerous calls about the smoke and haze.
He emphasized nothing is burning within the county but residents who are sensitive to smoke and have asthma or allergies should take necessary steps to protect their respiratory system.
“If you’re sensitive to smoke or have allergies or asthma, we recommend you stay indoors,” he said. “Every few years we experience this kind of phenomenon where smoke gathers around Forsyth County and Lake Lanier, and it will likely continue for a couple of days.”
Alexander said in the month of October the Forestry Commission responded to 362 fires in the Coosa District, which includes Forsyth.
Normally, he said, the month’s average is 30, but the number was up about 1,200 percent this year.
So far this month, he added, they have responded to 146 calls about fires, the average being 78 for November.
Nine days into the month, that number is already up almost 200 percent.
Shivers said though Forsyth County has not yet seen anything out of the ordinary, conditions are especially worrisome this year.
“This very dry summer has transitioned into a very dry fall and in autumn of this year, we’ve had very little rain,” he said. “Conditions outdoors are ripe for very fast-moving, dangerous brush fires.”
Shivers emphasized brush fires — as opposed to forest fires — are the concern in Forsyth County.
“We don’t have much of the forest areas — very few large spans of timber like you’d think of in the mountains,” he said. “But we do have a lot of green space, meadows, pastures, golf courses and parks. Wildland areas butt up against residences and suburban homes, and where those two worlds collide, there can be an increased risk for fire.”
In September, Forsyth County’s Fire Marshal issued an all-burn ban.
Usually, the ban runs from May through September and only restricts the burning of leaves, trash, yard debris and storm damage, generally still allowing camp fires, cooking fires and warming fires at construction sites.
But this year is different, with Forsyth County considered to be in severe drought, except for the northwest corner of the county that is in the worse-off extreme drought along with much of north Georgia, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
There are swaths of counties to the northwest and south of Forsyth that are in exceptional drought, the most intense classification.
“The Fire Marshal’s Office feels conditions are so dangerous that we’ve implemented a total ban on all burning,” Shivers said. “It’s rare for us to do so, but it’s within our local purview. Our fire ordinance [allows] us to halt all outdoor burning if conditions require it.”
Conditions, he said, do necessitate the ban, given the lack of ground moisture due to this year’s warm weather, low humidity and little rain.
Shivers emphasized that although fire officials are not looking for citizens violating the ban, the department is required to respond to reports of burnings and has been receiving calls.
“We’re not out policing the community, but if someone has a campfire and their neighbor calls, we’re obligated now to go out and ask them to put out the fire,” he said. “This isn’t to create a police state, it’s [just] there’s too much danger to their neighbors. It’s all in the interest of public safety.”
Brush fires have not yet proven a significant issue for county officials.
Shivers also said residents should be mindful of how they dispose of cigarettes.
“One of more common brush fire occurrences is small spot fires along roads and highways from cigarettes,” he said. “It’s frequent in this kind of weather and as cars move past, brush fires spread quickly because of wind flow. Within a few minutes, we’ll have multiple small fires to chase up and down the highway. We’d just appreciate everyone being mindful.”
For questions or more information on burning regulations, go to Forsythco.com or call the Forsyth County Fire Department Fire Marshal’s Office at (678) 455-8072.