National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Drought Induces Numerous Long-Lived Wildfires in November 2016

An abnormally dry start to the autumn season in September and October continued through the majority of November. Rainfall deficits of 4-6 inches during this timeframe sparked the introduction of severe drought across almost all of eastern Kentucky by the second and third weeks in November. Extreme drought also developed across much of the Cumberland Valley toward the end of November as the 4th driest fall on record was recorded at both Jackson and London. Additionally, the Fall of 2016 was the warmest on record across eastern Kentucky.

Early impacts ranged from farm ponds drying up and low streamflows in southern Kentucky to a few cities, such as Salyersville, mentioning possible water supply issues without significant rainfall by the end of November. Several farmers also mentioned the early consumption of hay by cattle, possibly leading to a shortage into the winter.

Wildfire activity began to rapidly increase across eastern Kentucky, especially southeastern Kentucky, by late October. The Kentucky State Emergency Operations Center was activated on November 3rd as at least five wildfires flared up across Harlan County, while three schools in Pike County were forced to close due to dense smoke. A state of emergency was later declared by the governor on the 3rd after meeting with the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

Impacts from as many as 41 wildfires at any one time became numerous rather quickly as nearly 500 personnel from the Kentucky Division of Forestry, Kentucky Fire Commission, Natural Resource Conservation Services, the Kentucky National Guard, and American Red Cross were deployed to southeastern Kentucky to assist local fire departments in fighting wildland fires. Crews battled the flames from both the ground and air as the Kentucky National Guard mobilized six UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters equipped with 600-gallon buckets and two LUH-72 Lakotas, dumping nearly 2 million gallons of water over approximately 50,000 acres.

One fire in Harlan County was responsible for consuming 7,400 acres on Pine Mountain. Kentucky Highway 1679 (Little Shepherds Trail) in Harlan County was closed to all traffic, except emergency vehicles, from Swap to the entrance of Kingdom Come State Park, while a portion of the Red River Gorge in the Daniel Boone National Forest was closed for several days along Tunnel Ridge Road north of Mountain Parkway. Numerous other roadways were closed as burned trees toppled over and smoke produced reduced visibilities. On the morning of November 16th, near-zero visibilities developed on Mountain Parkway just east of the Slade exit as smoke became extremely dense at ground level. A 12 car pileup resulted, injuring approximately 20 people and causing one fatality as a man stepped out of his coal truck to help others. Mountain Parkway was closed for over 10 hours between exits 22 and 40. One home was burned down in Knott County, while smoke and flames endangered several additional homes near Putney and Cumberland in Harlan County. Sadly, one firefighter passed away after being injured battling a late October brushfire near Beverly in Bell County. The city of Jackson and the National Weather Service office were also impacted by nearby wildfires and smoke, including the Eagles Nest Fire.

Burn bans were eventually issued for all 33 counties in eastern Kentucky, helping the state of Kentucky receive a Fire Management Assistance Grant from FEMA Region IV to support continuing fire operations in southeastern Kentucky. These continued until November 28th when the Kentucky Division of Forestry, National Guard, and Kentucky Fire Commission were demobilized as increasing moisture filtered into eastern Kentucky prior to resulting in widespread rainfall amounts of 1-4 inches.

A wildfire burns near Jackson.
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