Southern storms should ease drought, but fire threat remains
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ATLANTA — Storms roaring across the South appeared to be taking aim at some of the largest wildfires burning across the region, which could finally help firefighters in their efforts to subdue the blazes, authorities said Monday.
As the storm system passed over Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee late Monday, it was heading toward some of largest wildfires in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, smoke and fire caused the mandatory evacuation of downtown and surrounding areas, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. The wildfire set 30 buildings ablaze and was at the edge of Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park, TEMA spokesman Dean Flener said in a news release. TV news broadcasts showed residents streaming out of town just as rain started to wet roads.
The rain forecast "puts the bull's-eye of the greatest amounts right at the bull's-eye of where we've been having our greatest activity," said Dave Martin, deputy director of operations for fire and aviation management with the southern region of the U.S. Forest Service.
The projected rainfall amounts "really lines up with where we need it," Martin said Monday. "We're all knocking on wood."
Yet after weeks of punishing drought, any rain that falls should be soaked up quickly, forecasters said. It will provide some relief but won't end the drought — or the fire threat, they say.
Drought conditions will likely persist, authorities said. The problem is that rainfall amounts have been 10 to 15 inches below normal during the past three months in many parts of the South, authorities said.
"I think we racked up deficits that are going to be too much to overcome with just one storm system," said Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
"I would say it's way too early to say 'Yes, this drought is over,'" Svoboda said. "Does it put a dent in it? Yes, but we have a long ways to go."
The rain also brings danger because strong winds at the leading edge of the storms can topple trees and limbs that can kill and injure firefighters, he said.
In Mississippi, trees were reported downed in nearly 20 counties across the state. Sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph with gusts of more than 50 mph were reported and more than 2 inches of rain fell in some areas.
Power outages peaked at more than 23,000 statewide in Mississippi. Powerlines downed by winds sparked grass fires in four counties, said Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The storms were moving across Alabama on Monday night and were expected to slam into Georgia during the overnight hours. High wind warnings were issued for mountainous areas in northern parts of Georgia.
In South Carolina, the stormy forecast was giving hope to firefighters battling a blaze in the northwest corner of the state. The South Carolina Forestry Commission hopes to contain the Pinnacle Mountain fire by the middle of next week.
More rain was expected Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Jackson, Mississippi; Beth Campbell in Louisville, Kentucky; and Jack Jones in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed. Fuller reported from New Orleans.