Firefighters contain White Oak Mountain blaze

Published 1:11 pm Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Polk County Forest Ranger Dan Loudermelt said the fire likely was sparked by lightning after a storm rolled through Monday night, providing plenty of thunder and lightning but very little rain to extinguish sparks from a lightning strike. Embers may have smoldered in the dry ground until eventually igniting a fire that was spotted in the early morning, say fire officials.

Columbus Fire Chief Geoff Tennant said his department received a call on the fire at about 5:15 a.m. on Tuesday. Lacking information about the exact location of the fire, he says it took a while to pinpoint the&bsp; blaze, which was not easily accessible from nearby roads. He says the Columbus Fire Department got help from a Mission Hospital helicopter that provided a GPS reading, which fire crews used to locate the fire with their own GPS equipment.

The Columbus Fire Department then set up a staging area off Morning Ridge Drive on a ridge high above the fire. Firefighters had to descend about 20 minutes to get to the blaze, located on the north side of a ridgeline running between White Oak and Little White Oak mountains.

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The location of the fire on such steep slopes posed considerable risk since fires spread rapidly uphill and firefighters could not get hoses to the site.

The N.C. Forest Service provided a spotter plane and two helicopters carrying water to help contain the fire.&bsp; According to fire officials, the blaze was limited to between three to five acres.

Forest Ranger Loudermelt led a crew of about 15 forest service firefighters to help contain the blaze, which also drew help from all six fire departments in the county and a crew from the N.C. Wildlife Service.

Nearly a dozen local agencies assisted with the fire, including Polk County Emergency Medical Services, the Polk County Sheriff&squo;s Office and the Polk County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross delivered many bottles of water and food to help firefighters &dquo;rehab.&dquo; The water was particularly critical Tuesday since temperatures soared into the mid and upper 90s.

One firefighter reportedly suffered a knee injury while working on the steep slopes around the fire, but the severity of the injury was unknown. Chief Tennant said it was difficult to get the firefighter out of the forest quickly and to an ambulance given the steep terrain. The firefighter was scheduled to go to the hospital for an evaluation.&bsp;