Relentless smoke spreads fear at edge of southern wildfires

(AP) - The Latest on the persistent drought and wildfires that have burned more than 80,000 acres of forest and blanketed large areas of the south in dangerous haze. All times Eastern:

Thick smoke has settled over a wide area of the southern Appalachians, where dozens of uncontrolled wildfires are burning through decades of leaf litter, making people breathe in tiny bits of the forest with every gulp of air.

It's a constant reminder of the threat to many small mountain communities, where relentless drought and now persistent fires and smoke make people feel under siege.

More than 5,000 firefighters and support personnel, including many veterans of wildfires in the arid West, are reinforcing local crews in the fire zone, which has spread from northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee into eastern Kentucky, the western Carolinas and parts of surrounding states. 

"A lot of the ladies just went to tears and said this happens in other places, it doesn't happen here," pastor Scott Cates said as townspeople donated water, cough drops and other supplies for the firefighters at the Liberty Baptist church in the town of Tiger.

Here, these fires don't sleep. They burn through the night, through the now-desiccated tinder of deciduous forests accustomed to wet, humid summers and autumns.

"It doesn't die down after dark," says fire Capt. Ron Thalacker, who came from Carlsbad, New Mexico, and is leading a crew spraying hotspots in Rabun County, at the epicenter of the southern fires.

Large, wind-driven fires that scorch pine forests in the West often burn in the tree tops and mellow out at night, but these fires are clinging to the ground and actively burning 24 hours a day, said firefighter Chad Cullum of Billings, Montana.

Cullum spoke briefly, as flames rolled down a mountainside behind him. Then he ordered everyone to get out. "We need to leave," he said sternly, ushering people to move down a rocky dirt road.

Tim Free, a lifelong resident, broke down with emotion as he described how elderly neighbors are struggling with relentless smoke, so thick it blocks the sun.

"Everybody is pulling together," Free said as more donations arrived at the church. "That's where you see your community pull together, and that's what we're fortunate to have here is people who care about people."

Tom Stokesberry, an emergency medical technician from Six Rivers National Forest in California, arrived in north Georgia on Veteran's Day.

"The goal is to keep this line intact," Stokesberry said, pointing to a narrow, winding dirt road between a burning mountainside and a pasture that, so far, has been untouched by the fire. Just beyond it is a farmhouse. It wasn't clear whether the property had been evacuated.

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5:35 p.m.

The wildfires in western North Carolina are continuing to grow, but the weather has provided brief assistance in fighting them.

Federal and state forestry officials say the fires in North Carolina now cover in excess of 40,000 acres. They said in a statement Tuesday that cloudy conditions allowed firefighters to make progress on containment.

They also said the low pressure system that brought cloudy and favorable conditions moved out of the area Tuesday morning, giving way to a high pressure system that will bring clearing skies and lower humidity.

Officials also said ground-level smoke will remain a concern over the next few days. Winds along ridge tops are expected to increase through Wednesday and may expand the fire.

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4:45 p.m.

Authorities have arrested two men in separate arson cases as Tennessee fends off wildfires that have burned more than 16,000 acres in the eastern end of the state.

State Agriculture investigators, the State Fire Marshal's office and local authorities arrested Matthew Ryan Wallace, 27, of Tuscaloosa, Ala. He is charged with igniting a wildfire along a Sequatchie County road Monday. The felony charges are punishable by up to six years in jail and up to a $3,000 fine.

Separately, Monroe County deputies arrested Charles Edward Martin, 50, of Madisonville, Tenn., on Monday for intentionally setting a fire along a road.

The state's arson reward fund has grown to offer up to $2,500 for a tip that lead to an arson arrest and conviction. Tennessee's Farm Bureau Federation and Forestry Association have donated to the fund.

The arson hotline is 1-800-762-3017.

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