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BANDY CREEK — The National Park Service has announced a ban on open fires in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, as abnormally dry conditions continue to prevail.

Niki Nicholas, superintendent of the Big South Fork NRRA, announced the burn ban Friday afternoon. It applies to open fires within the backcountry and all other parts of the park outside designated campgrounds — including Bandy Creek and Blue Heron campgrounds in Scott County. Other campgrounds include Blue Heron, Alum Ford, Bear Creek Horse Camp and Charit Creek Lodge.

Portable stoves that use propane or other types of fuel are still permitted in the backcountry. However, no wood-based or charcoal-based fires are permitted, including campfires or fires for cooking.

Nicholas said that the ban will not be lifted until sufficient rainfall has been received to increase soil moisture levels “significantly.”

This marks the first fire ban in the BSF backcountry since Fall 2016, when an extreme drought led to a greatly heightened risk of wildfires. That year, the Chimney Rocks fire near Station Camp burned thousands of acres and closed a portion of the backcountry for days.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, most of Tennessee — including Scott County and the Big South Fork — is classified as “Abnormally Dry,” the first stage of an official drought. The latest classifications were released on Thursday.

National Weather Service records indicate that only four-one hundreds of an inch of rain have fallen in Oneida during the month of September. While September is one of the driest months of the year in Oneida — second only to October — a typical September sees nearly 2.5 inches of rain fall. The Oneida area received above-average rainfall in August — it was the 12th consecutive month to feature above-average precipitation, dating back to September 2018 — but meaningful rain hasn’t fallen in Oneida since August 27-28, when about a half-inch of rain was received in a two-day period.

State to require burn permits

State officials say the dry period is resulting in an elevated risk for wildfires. On Thursday, State Forester David Arnold issued an order requiring a burn permit for any open-air fire within 500 feet of any forest, grassland or woodland beginning Monday, September 23. Typically, burn permits are not required until mid October. 

State forestry officials say they have not seen an increase in the number of wildfires, but added that conditions are becoming favorable for wildfires.

“Many areas within the state are experiencing continued hot and dry conditions,” Arnold said on Tuesday. “While open-air burning permits are not currently required to burn outdoors, caution and conservative judgment should be used when conducting any outdoor burning.”

However, Arnold reversed course on Thursday, issuing the order that burn permits will be required beginning September 23.

As a general rule, forestry officials advise that outdoor debris burning take place only when relative humidity is above 40 percent and winds are less than 10 miles per hour.