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Unfinished house burns; 14 brush fires plague area

POSTED: February 22, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Robin Michener Nathan/The Times

Gainesville firefighters first use a chain saw and then a knee to break a hole into the roof of 1208 Riverside Drive during a fire on Sunday afternoon.

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Fire officials said high winds reaching 31 mph and low humidity are to blame for the rash of small fires that broke out Sunday afternoon in Northeast Georgia.

As a result of weather conditions, the Georgia Forestry Commission issued a red flag fire warning that remained in effect for parts of North Georgia until 9 p.m. Sunday.

In addition to a vacant house located at 1208 Riverside Drive in Gainesville that caught fire Sunday, 14 small brush fires broke out in eight counties within the Gainesville District of the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Interim Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada said all four Gainesville fire units and one Hall County fire unit responded to the house fire midafternoon Sunday. Canada said when the fire units arrived, about 40 percent of the approximately 12,000-square-foot brick and stone home in flames.

He said the home was in the process of being built and was about 90 percent complete when fire from an unknown source broke through the back windows of the house and extended from the main floor to the attic.

"With the high winds that we were having (Sunday), this fire had vented itself from the rear of the structure," Canada said. "The wind was an obstacle we had to overcome very quickly."

Canada said the hardwood interior of the home fueled the fire that took city and county firefighters 45 minutes to contain. It was soon fully extinguished.

According to Canada, no one was injured in the blaze, and the home was unoccupied when the fire started. He said that about 40 percent of the home sustained fire damage, but smoke and water damage permeated the entire home.

Neighbors said the owners of the nearly complete home were out of town and were scheduled to move in to the house this week.

Canada said the cause of the fire is unknown, and the incident remains under investigation.

Strong winds proved to be a factor not only in the house fire, but in brush fires throughout Northeast Georgia.

According to Shawn Alexander, district ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission Gainesville District, three fires occurred in both Lumpkin and Franklin counties and two fires occurred in both Barrow and Stephens counties. Alexander said at least one fire was reported Sunday in each of White, Hart, Morgan and Walton counties.

Alexander said no one was injured in any of the brush fires, but multiple automobiles and recreational vehicles did sustain fire damage in the White County fire that occurred near a recreational vehicle campsite off Paradise Valley Road.

At 2.5 acres, the largest fire in the area was located off Ga. 9 near Clay Creek Falls Road in Lumpkin County, Alexander said.

Like the other two fires in Lumpkin County, Alexander said the 2.5-acre fire was caused by trees falling onto power lines as a result of strong winds. He added that the half million-acre fire that occurred in Waycross last April was also sparked by trees falling onto power lines. Alexander said the two fires in Barrow County were initiated by illegal outdoor burning.

The majority of fires in Northeast Georgia were less than two acres in size, and were easily contained by late afternoon, Alexander said. "There may be smoldering stumps or logs or something out in the interior of the fire, but there’s a control line around (the fire site)," he said. "Everything’s burnt out except for those smoldering items, and that may go on into the evening."

According to Laura Griffith, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, wind speeds in Gainesville averaged 22 mph Sunday, and gusts were measured at 31 mph. She said the low humidity level in Gainesville, which measured at 25 percent, combined with gusty winds to create dangerous conditions for fire.

"Basically, conditions are ideal for either wildlands fire ignition or propagation of fires that already exist," Griffith said.

Randy Nichols, center manager for the Southern Area Coordination Center, said drought conditions coupled with high winds spelled widespread fires for the South on Sunday. Nichols said fire officials in parts of West Texas and Oklahoma continued to battle large-scale fires Sunday, while mostly small fires sprouted up in the southeastern states. He added that at least two large fires were burning in Virginia.

Nichols said the fire season for southeastern states typically begins in early March, and can run through the end of April. He said the persisting drought in the southeast may be to blame for the early onslaught of brush fires.

"We’re coming into one of the driest springs," Nichols said. "Coming into this year with a rain deficit, it can definitely have a significant affect on fire activity."

Based on data collected by the National Weather Service in Athens and Atlanta, Griffith said that since Jan. 1, the Gainesville area has received about 2.5 inches less rain than normal.

Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said the fire department stopped issuing outdoor burning permits Saturday afternoon because of high winds. He said fire officials will re-evaluate weather conditions early this morning to determine whether outdoor burning permits for fires larger than small recreational and cooking fires can be safely issued today.



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