Firefighters from four states fight blaze over two days
by Kate Shunney & Kate Evans
Firefighters and crews from the West Virginia Division of Forestry have contained and largely extinguished a mountain fire that burned roughly 100 acres on Sleepy Creek Mountain, largely in the Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Assistant State Forester for Fire Jeremy Jones said Tuesday regional forestry crews were on Sleepy Creek Mountain using hand tools and leaf blowers to remove fuel from the burning area.
The fire was first reported at roughly 3 p.m. on Monday, March 21. The 911 caller said the mountain was on fire and it was spreading rapidly. 911 Deputy Director Marshall Younker said the blaze started on private land.
Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Company Deputy Chief Chris Sipe said Berkeley Springs responded to reports of a small fire, but as Wagon 1 got within five miles of the scene, firefighters could see a “large column” of smoke and immediately requested additional units. As Sipe established command, crews could see six acres already burned, with the flames spreading rapidly driven by the wind.
Sipe said a secondary access to the fire was reported, and brush units were rerouted to get resources closer to the area.
Brush apparatus and other fire resources were staged Monday afternoon and evening on top of Sleepy Creek Mountain at White’s Gap public access area, and in other locations.
Brush equipment was necessary for the rough terrain, and before dark, at least one helicopter was seen flying over the area to assess the situation.
By sundown, the fire had grown to at least 50 acres and was moving toward the top of the mountain and to the south, said one public official at a staging site on the 22,000-acre wildlife management area.
Residents of the area captured photos of the blaze moving from a single smoking spot to a blazing orange line as night fell.
Members of the public reported being able to see smoke from the mountain fire as far away as Ranson, in Jefferson County.
Public safety officials reportedly went door to door in the immediate area of the fire to make contact with homeowners and residents.
Jones said the fire was 50% contained on Monday night when command was turned over to the Division of Forestry from Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Company Deputy Chief Chris Sipe and Chief James Steiner.
On Tuesday morning, fire was still visibly moving in that area and local units were called back to White’s Gap for fire activity. Chief Steiner was in command on Tuesday, as well.
“We’re expecting more favorable conditions today,” Jones said Tuesday of weather forecasts calling for higher humidity. Rain is expected for the rest of the week.
Younker hoped that the forecast of rain coming in mid-Wednesday morning would help put out the fire.
Homes near the fire appeared unaffected by the blaze on Tuesday morning, but heavy smoke filled the area as the fire continued to burn. By Wednesday morning, only light smoke was visible on the mountain from a distance.
Sipe said the total acres burned stands at somewhere between 75 and 100 acres, with a more accurate count to be determined on Wednesday.
Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area is almost entirely forested in the affected area, covered primarily in mature hardwoods. There are few passable roads that provide access to the public land, which straddles the Morgan and Berkeley County lines.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the Division of Forestry, said Jones. Their priority on Tuesday was to fully contain the fire.
Forestry and local fire crews don’t have the resources to bring in large amounts of water, or do fire suppression air drops, said Jones. Instead, crews on the ground work to remove the leaf layer and downed trees that feed the fire’s spread.
Jones said he has seen comments indicating mountain fires can be beneficial for natural areas.
“It’s not the case at all. It’s not beneficial when a fire happens this way,” he said.
Fire units from Berkeley Springs, Great Cacapon, South Morgan and Paw Paw Volunteer Fire Companies responded to the mountain fire along with volunteer fire units from Bedford, Fulton and Franklin Counties in Pennsylvania, Frederick Washington and Allegany Counties in Maryland, Mineral, Hampshire, Berkeley and Jefferson Counties in West Virginia and Frederick County, Virginia. Several fire companies also sent units to fill the stations at Berkeley Springs and Great Cacapon while local firefighters responded to the mountain. That assistance came from Baltimore Pike, Washington County, Md. and Breezewood, Pa., Mineral County and Hampshire County. Allen Truax also assisted firefighters with excavating equipment, and local residents offered use of ATVs and other equipment.
Crews will continue to monitor the area during the daytime but will be down at night. Sipe said fire crews were pulled from the scene on Monday and Tuesday at dark for their safety, and the scene was then turned over to the Division of Forestry. Area residents have been asked to watch for any rekindles on the mountain.
Foresters don’t generally do any post-fire restoration, Jones said. The Division of Natural Resources (DNR), which manages the mountain land as a wildlife management area, may choose to come back to the acreage to rehabilitate the damage, depending on their wildlife priorities.
According to the DNR, Sleepy Creek Mountain was historically the site of several wildfires in the first half of the 20th century following clearcutting. The largest of those fires burned in 1942, with the fire burning down to the mineral soil. The area became a state-owned forest and public hunting area in 1951.