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'The Worst I've Ever Seen'; Fires Sweep Through Southeastern U.S.

A satellite image shows smoke from wildfires burning in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia on Nov. 7.
A satellite image shows smoke from wildfires burning in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia on Nov. 7.

"No one can remember a wildfire as peculiar as the monster gnawing through the gorge above the village of Chimney Rock," began an article Monday in the Charlotte Observer.

The blaze in question is one of dozens of partially contained wildfires, some of them suspected cases of arson, burning across the Southeast. In Alabama alone, there are currently 20 fires burning, and more than 1,500 blazes have burned there since October 1, according to the Alabama Forestry Commission.

People are being evacuated in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, including in and around Chimney Rock, N.C., where the erratic fire described in the Observer has enveloped some 3,000 acres since Saturday, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

As of Monday afternoon, that blaze was only 15 percent contained.

"This fire has the characteristics of western fires, of California fires," Richard Barnwell, the 74-year-old fire chief for the town of Bat Cave, N.C., told the Observer. "This is the worst I've ever seen."

Even the mountain coyotes are spooked. "We've had sightings of them from several people," Carrie Harmon of the N.C. Forest Service told the paper.

Like many fires in the region, the cause of the Bat Cave/Chimney Rock blaze is still under investigation. Just over the state line in northern Georgia, authorities think someone started a 4,000-acre fire, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Starting fires is banned in the entire Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, where this fire is burning.

In northeast Georgia, the Rabun County Sheriff's Office said on Facebook that it was was looking for "a dark blue SUV driven by a person of interest" in connection with fires that forced parts of that county to be evacuated.

In Tennessee, police arrested a man suspected of setting fires in the eastern part of the state. Andrew Scott Lewis is charged with three counts of setting fire to personal property or land and "vandalism over $250,000," according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

On Friday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley announced the state would pay a $5,000 reward to anyone with information about who set the fires burning in that state. In a statement, Bentley reminded residents that a severe, months-long drought increased the risk of fires, and posed "a real danger to Alabama wildland and property."

As we have reported, nearly 40 percent of the Southeast is suffering moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the most recent analysis by the Southeast Regional Climate Center.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.