• The flames were spread across 8,695 acres at Boteler Peak. Photo by BEN KATZ
    The flames were spread across 8,695 acres at Boteler Peak. Photo by BEN KATZ

Community unites firefighting effort

    The relentless 70-square-mile blaze of forest fires in Nantahala National Forest has not dwindled the driven spirits of more than 809 firefighters from across the nation.
    Boteler Peak fire public information officer Joe Mazzeo said some of the help has come from crews based as far away as northern California, Puerto Rico, Washington and Alaska.
    The Nantahala National Forest’s largest blaze, the Tellico fire, has more than 464 personnel assisting with the flames. As of Tuesday morning, the fire has reached up to 13,676 acres, causing multiple evacuations west, north and east of the fire.
    Located northwest of Franklin in the Nantahala Mountains, the fire started on Nov. 3 and is 39 percent contained. No homes or people have been burned by the flames.
    Mazzeo said firefighters are constructing containment lines and using helicopters and planes to drop water when necessary. Firefighter crews will continue offering protection around homes close to the fire.
    He said the fires will become manageable if a large snowstorm or significant rainstorm occurs.
    “It’s difficult terrain out there,” Mazzeo said. “They (firefighters) may not get containment lines all around the area because of that.”
    The U.S. Forest Service is investigating arson as a possible cause for wildfires in Nantahala National Forest. Mazzeo said the Boteler Peak fire has been confirmed as being caused naturally.
    As the numbers of fires increase in the area, the number of community support for firefighters continues to rise. Several Murphy businesses – including Walmart, Red Brick Deli, Brother’s Restaurant, ShoeBooties Cafe and Downtown Pizza Co. – have offered assistance in providing food and essential items for firefighters.
    From 4-8 p.m. Monday, Brother’s and Marble Springs Baptist Church are joining forces to raise money for firefighters and those evacuating because of the fires. The event will take place at the restaurant on Andrews Road.
    Fire victims and firefighters will receive a free spaghetti meal, along with drink and dessert. Other participants can purchase the meal for $7, which will be donated to firefighters and evacuees.
    Bram Farbstein, owner of the Red Brick Deli, said the more smoke he saw in Murphy, the more he thought about helping firefighters. On Sunday, his staff and a couple of volunteers made 188 sandwiches, along with chips and brownies, for those helping fight the Hayesville fires.
    “One of the guys (firefighters) from the east coast of North Carolina came over and said there was an unbelievable community response,” Farbstein said. “That made everything worth it.”
    From firefighters to forest service personnel, Downtown Pizza is offering free pizza to anyone involved with the fires. Manager Lizz Aquarian said the free pizza offer will remain available until all of the fires become manageable.
    She said her mother and owner of the restaurant, Kathy Cousin, always had a vision of using her business to benefit the community. When the fires started, Cousin saw an opportunity to give back.
    Since starting the free pizza offer a couple of days ago, they have served more than 50 firefighting personnel. Aquarian said the firefighters often come in covered in soot, bringing a new perspective to the severity of the situation.
    “We want people to come on in and take advantage of this,” she said. “We can’t fight fires, but we can make pizza.”
    The Cherokee County Health Department is offering free N95 masks to anyone who needs them to combat the poor air quality. They are available from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the health department in Murphy and from 8 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Andrews Health Center.
    Similar masks will be provided at Friday’s Murphy High School football game to those who have a medical need.
    List of fire updates in Nantahala National Forest as of Tuesday morning from the N.C. National Forest:
    * Boteler Peak: Located west of Chunky Gal near Hayesville, the fire started Oct. 25 and has reached 8,695 acres, with 37 percent contained.
    * Dick’s Creek: The fire is northwest of Sylva and has covered 728 acres since starting Oct. 23, with 94 percent contained.
    * Knob: The fire is southwest of Franklin in the Nantahala Mountains. The fire started Nov. 2 and has covered 1,130 acres, with 94 percent contained.
    * Muskrat Valley: Located in Macon County, the fire started on Nov. 11 and covers 103 acres, with 75 percent contained.
    * Tellico: The fire northwest of Franklin in the Nantahala mountains started Nov. 3 and covers 13,676 acres, with 39 percent contained.
    Fire evacuation shelters:
    * Swain County Senior Center: 125 Brendle St., Bryson City, NC 28713.
    * Macon County EMS Base: 125 Hyatt Road, Franklin, NC 28734.