Fire scorches Harpers Ferry National Park Area traffic tied up

Appalachian Trail affected

October 24, 1998|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va -- A stubborn three-day forest fire scorched Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, tying up traffic for several hours yesterday and closing a a stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

Park officials said last night that the blaze was under control. More than 20 acres was blackened just west of the historic Potomac River town.

"Things are much more manageable now than they were a few days ago, but obviously we're still concerned," said Marsha Starky, spokeswoman for the 2,300-acre park, where fall colors in October are as much an attraction as its history.

The fire did not threaten any homes in the area or visitors to the park, which contains exhibits on the town's role during the Civil War era. More than 500,000 people visit the park annually.

U.S. 340, which runs through the town and the park, was closed yesterday afternoon, then reopened to allow traffic in one lane.

Park officials said firefighters were dispatched to the area XTC Wednesday afternoon when a ranger reported a small fire.

"We thought we had it Wednesday," said Park Ranger Jeff Pinkard. "But then it flared up again."

Volunteers from the Blue Ridge Fire Department began fighting the blaze, then called for help. "The first night, we were out here for 13 hours," said Blue Ridge Fire Chief Scott Knill. "We get a lot of these fires, but I haven't seen one like this in a long time."

National Park Service personnel joined the volunteers, along with firefighters from West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. As many as 40 worked to contain the blaze.

D.C. firefighter Kevin Price, who helped quell forest fires that ravaged central Florida earlier this year, said this blaze was tiny by comparison but still serious.

About 20 park employees remained last night to contain the fire.

Don Boucher, a regional fire officer for the Park Service, said rocky, steep terrain hindered firefighters' efforts to put out the fire Wednesday. "The area is so rough that we managed to put the top of the fire out but couldn't put the bottom out," he said.

Residents, the nearest of whom live a few miles away, said the fire was worrisome.

"Every year, we get something, but it's always contained quickly and it never requires this amount of manpower," said Rose Donnelly, 39.

Ed van Steinberg, incident commander with the Park Service, said he expects the fire to be completely subdued today.

The cause remains under investigation, but officials suspect that the fire occurred naturally.

"We're in the fire season now," said Boucher. "What makes things worse is that the land is dry and the winds are fierce. All we can do now is wait for things to calm down."

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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