By Lynn R. Mitchell
[Also check for fire updates at Bearing Drift.]
A forest fire in Shenandoah National Park that has grown to more than 3,000 acres has disrupted National Parks Week that began Saturday, the same day the Rocky Mount fire broke out in the southern portion of the Park.
Tuesday evening Park spokeswoman Lisa Wilkolak confirmed that Skyline Drive remains closed in the southern section between Swift Run Gap and Loft Mountain Campground.
A narrow plume of smoke rising from the Blue Ridge Mountain ridges within the Park was spotted from Harrisonburg on Saturday and became larger over the weekend as the fire spread. Abundant natural fuel combined with extremely dry conditions, low humidity, and high winds contributed to the fire growing to more than 3,000 acres.
The flames have been visible for miles at night, and friends reported seeing and smelling smoke thirty miles east in Charlottesville. A lack of lightning storms suggested it may be human caused.
Trail closures were updated on Tuesday with the following:
– Skyline Drive is CLOSED between the entrance at Swift Run Gap at Milepost 65 (Route 33) and Loft Mountain at MP 79;
– The Appalachian Trail is closed from Powell Gap at MP 70 to Doyles River Overlook at MP 82.
– Rocky Mount Trail;
– Gap Run Trail;
– Onemile Trail;
– Pinefield Hut at MP 75;
– Brown Mountain Trail;
– Big Run Portal Trail;
– Rocky Mountain Run Trail;
– Rockytop Trail;
– Big Run Loop;
– Austin Mountain Trail;
– Lewis Peak Trail;
– Patterson Ridge Trail;
– Madison Run Spur;
– Madison Run Fire Road.
Search for missing Fairfax firefighter
Over the weekend another incident caused the park service to close trails in the vicinity of Skyland Resort in the Central Distict of the Drive. Due to the ongoing search for 31-year-old Fairfax County firefighter Nicole Mittendorff, the following trails located in the search area are closed:
– Whiteoak Canyon
– Crescent Rocks
– Cedar Run
– Cedar Run Link Trail.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Virginia State Police and U.S. Park Police were using officers trained in search and rescue, dogs and aircraft to try to locate” the firefighter who had was reported missing on Friday:
The search on Monday morning had centered on the White Oak Canyon Trail, near where Mittendorff’s cream-colored 2009 Mini Cooper was discovered on Saturday close to the popular hiking spot of Old Rag mountain, said Corinne Geller, a Virginia State Police spokeswoman.
But on Monday afternoon, Shenandoah National Park announced it was closing four other trails in the area to search for Mittendorff as well.
Mittendorff is described as a 5-foot-6-inch white woman with blond hair and green eyes, weighing about 125 pounds. The Virginia State Police has asked anyone with information about Mittendorff to call 703-803-0026 or email information to email@example.com.
Shenandoah National Park still open for visitors
There are still plenty of places open in the park — hikes and facilities including Skyland Resort and the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows at MP 51.
Shenandoah National Park personnel suggested some favorite trails that are open:
– Waterfall hike: Rose River Loop;
– Vista hikes: Stony Man, Marys Rock, and Mt. Marshall;
– Canyon hike: Little Devil Stairs.
Free admission to the Park continues through April 24.
Updated 4/20/2016 at 6pm: The Rocky Mount fire in Shenandoah National Park expanded to 5,600 acres on Wednesday. For comparison, that is roughly half the size of the city of Harrisonburg or almost the size of Massanutten Resort (6,000 acres). Winds on Tuesday out of the north and Wednesday’s easterly winds have caused smoke to cover the Valley and settle over Harrisonburg and surrounding areas including south to Staunton and west to Franklin, West Virginia. Winds are expected to pick up on Thursday from the south pushing smoke north to New Market and vicinity.
This afternoon I drove from Fishersville in Augusta County north along the mountains to Route 33, driving into a curtain of smoke as the mountains completely disappeared. It looked like fog around houses, barns, cattle, farmers working in their fields, and businesses. A command center has been set up in Grottoes on the Rockingham-Augusta County line. Weather conditions are extremely dry with the first (small) chance of precipitation not expected until Friday. Humidity is low but expected to increase Thursday and even more on Friday. Those with health concerns regarding the smoke have been advised to stay indoors with good air circulation such as ceiling fans or air conditioning. All closures of trails and the Skyline Drive (above) are still in effect, and additional closures have been added. This from the Park Service:
Due to trail improvement work, the Hawksbill area will be closed from Wednesday, April 20 through Friday, April 22 and Monday, April 25 through Friday, April 29. Closures will be suspended for the April 23-24 weekend. This closure includes: Upper Hawksbill Parking, Upper Hawksbill Trail, Salamander Trail, Lower Hawksbill Trail, Byrds Nest 2 Shelter, Hawksbill Observation Platform, and the summit area of Hawksbill Mountain. These are not related to the existing fire or missing-person trail closures.
The Hawksbill Observation Platform is being renovated as part of the National Park Service Centennial celebration. The project is being funded by a generous donation from the Shenandoah National Park Trust
Update 4/20/2016 at 8:30pm: Additional information has been shared by Shenandoah National Park:
Current Status 4/20/2016
The Southern Area Incident Management (Red) Team joined unified command today with the Shenandoah National Park and the Virginia Department of Forestry on the Rocky Mtn Fire 2016 burning in the Shenandoah National Park. The fire is suspected to be human caused, but remains under investigation. Late yesterday afternoon, the Rocky Mtn Fire had an 80-100 acre slop-over on the east side of Skyline Drive near mile marker 76. Since yesterday, the total fire acres have grown to approximately 5,600.
A firing operation was conducted yesterday to burn vegetation near the Beldor Hollow Community to help contain the fire to that area. Crews are confident that the fire will hold at Beldor Hollow Rd. The fire progressed south near Brown Mountain Trail and was active overnight near 2 Mile Run Lane. The Virginia Department of Forestry crews monitored the area overnight. Fire crews are providing structure protection near 2 Mile Run and Lam Hollow communities. The weather remains dry today; however, a cold front is expected to bring a chance of rain on Friday. The fire is burning in mountain laurel, pine, and oak forests with heavy leaf litter.
Today crews are actively suppressing the slop-over in the area of Skyline Drive. Crews continue to hold the containment line at Beldor Hollow Rd. and are mopping up in that area. Crews are working to complete a handline to tie into the dozer line for containment along the western park boundary. Priorities are structure protection and containing the fire within the boundaries of the park, west of Skyline Drive, east of 2 Mile Run community, and west of Beldor Hollow fire road to minimize impacts to private lands.
Equipment: 2 Type 2 Helicopters, 2 Type 3 Helicopters, 6 engines, 2 fixed wing air tankers
Cooperators: National Park Service, Virginia Department of Forestry, Rockingham County Department of Fire and Rescue, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Grottoes Volunteer Fire Department.
Dry cold front moved through the area last night bringing a wind shift out of the easterly direction. Smoke may drift over the Shenandoah Valley. Mostly sunny with high temperature around 66°F and lows in the mid-40s °F. Relative humidity is 21-26%. Easterly winds are expected today at 3-5 mph.
Update 4/21/2016 at 9:30am: Here is a map from the Virginia Department of Forestry showing the burn area in yellow. Fire lines have been set up at the park boundaries where private homes may be in danger.
Update 4/21/2016 at 10am: More trail closings announced by the Park Service:
– Loft Mountain Wayside
– Browns Gap Fire Road
– Madison Run Fire Road
– Doyles River PATC Cabin.
– Skyline Drive is now closed from Swift Run Gap (MP 65.5) to Browns Gap (MP 83).
Update 4/21/2016 at 1:30pm: SNP has announced additional closures:
– Skyline Drive is now closed from Swift Run Gap (MP 65.5) to Blackrock Gap (MP 87.5).
– The Appalachian Trail is now closed from Powell Gap (MP 70) to Blackrock Gap (MP 87.5).
– Blackrock hut is closed.
New trail closures:
– Furnace Mountain Trail
– Trayfoot Mountain Trail
– Jones Run trail
– Doyles River trail
Update 4/21/2016 at 4:30pm: Shenandoah National Park wants visitors to know the areas where trails are closed also means the back country around those trails is also closed. Here is their latest update:
We want to get a message out to our visitors that during these major fire and search incidents when the trail is closed – the closure includes all on-trail and off-trail use. We use the term “back country” to describe the areas of the park that are away from developed areas and roads. During these incidents with trail closures, the back country in these areas is also closed.
Update 4/21/2016 at 6pm: The search in Shenandoah National Park for missing Fairfax County firefighter Nicole Mittenhoff was suspended this afternoon when a body was found by searchers. The National Park Service released the following:
Madison County, Va-Search efforts in the Shenandoah National Park were suspended Thursday afternoon (April 21, 2016) with the discovery of female remains within the park property. At approximately 2:00 p.m. a ground team of National Park Service and Virginia State Police personnel discovered a body in a remote location more than a mile from the Whiteoak Canyon parking area and about 330 yards from the trail in treacherous rocky terrain. National Park Service and Virginia State Police are currently still processing the scene.
National Park Service and Virginia State Police personnel will conduct a press conference at Whiteoak parking area at 7:30 p.m.
More on this breaking story can be found here.
Update 4/22/2016 at 9am: The SNP fire engulfed more than 8,000 acres. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stopped by the Grottoes command center this morning to thank those who are working the fire both on and behind the front lines.
Stone Gait Farm in the foreground belongs to Tina and Alan Grove. I don’t know who to give photo credit to for this stunning photo that helps to show the intensity and enormity of the Rocky Mount fire.
Update 4/22/2016 at 5:30pm: All trail closures in the Whiteoak area associated with the recent search for the missing hiker/firefighter have been lifted.
We had rain today in the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding mountains. Driving north to eastern Rockingham County this afternoon, the air quality had improved greatly since Wednesday. Wind directions had changed yesterday and moved smoke north and northeast.
The latest report from the Park Service:
Fire containment lines were improved by burning out vegetation between the containment lines and the main fire yesterday afternoon and evening south along Skyline Drive to mile marker 80. Additional fire line improvement was successfully completed along the boundaries of the fire from Skyline Drive across the entire northern portion from Beldor Hollow to the Gap Run area.
With the changing and variable winds yesterday fire crews picked up multiple spot fires, catching and containing all of them including a spot that jumped Skyline Drive. The flame lengths, which have been 3 to 4 feet, are now anticipated to be in the 6 inch to 1 foot range unless influenced by wind over the next couple of operation periods, but dependent on rain fall. This is creating a window of opportunity for fire resources to more effectively contain and expand mop up operations today.
The Team urges the public to keep drones out of the area. Fire aircraft have to be grounded whenever a drone is spotted in the wildfire area. Total fire acres are 7,935 with 40% containment. The fire, which was first reported on Saturday, April 16th, is burning in mountain laurel, pine, and oak forests with heavier than average leaf litter and duff.
In addition, “crews are continuing to actively suppress spot fires in the area of Skyline Drive. Crews continue to hold and mop up along containment lines. A new operational division has been created and staffed for the southwestern section of the fire. Today’s efforts are focused on continued scouting and building and/or improvement of containment lines along the southern and western boundaries of the fire.”
A Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) has been declared for this fire.
Skyline Drive continues to be closed from Swift Run Gap (MP 65.5) to Black Rock Gap (MP 87.5). That leaves 18 miles of the Drive open from Afton Mountain/Rockfish Gap/I-64 (MP 105) to Black Rock Gap.
The Appalachian Trail is closed from Blackrock Gap (MP 87.5) to Powell Gap (MP 70).
– Rockytop Trail
– Rocky Mount Trail
– Big Run Loop
– Gap Run Trail
– Austin Mountain Trail
– Onemile Run Trail
– Lewis Peak Trail
– Brown Mountain Trail
– Patterson Ridge Trail
– Big Run Portal Trail
– Madison Run Spur
– Furnace Mountain Trail
– Trayfoot Mountain Trail
– Blackrock Trail
– Doyles River Trail
– Jones Run Trail
– Rocky Mountain Run Trail
– Madison Run Fire Road
– Browns Gap Fire Road
– Madison Run Fire Road
– Doyles River Cabin is closed
Equipment: 2 Type 2 Helicopters, 3 Type 3 Helicopters, 11 engines, 2 fixed wing SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers) and 2 Air Attack/lead plane
Cooperators: National Park Service, Virginia Department of Forestry, Rockingham County Department of Fire and Rescue, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Grottoes Volunteer Fire Department.
A cold front is moving slowly across the Appalachian Mountains today with the first showers expected to arrive in the fire area by this morning and a potential for brief thunder showers this afternoon, bringing projected rainfall total of a tenth to just over a quarter of an inch. Winds today will be out of the southwest, shifting to the northwest tonight after the frontal passage. In spite of the wetting showers and increased humidity it will continue to be breezy along the ridgetops and along Skyline Drive. Smoke production by the fire is anticipated to be lighter than earlier days and will be blowing to the northeast of the fire switching around to the southeast, towards Charlottesville by late afternoon.
A helpful link for smoke/air quality: http://vadeq.tx.sutron.com
Update 4/22/2016 at 6:30pm:Admission to Shenandoah National Park is FREE for the rest of the weekend. The northern and central sections of Skyline Drive are open as well as Skyland Resort, Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows, and the Junior Ranger programs begin this weekend.