Since this past Friday (October 16), a wildfire emergency has occurred in the Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama. The fire was discovered in an area near the Big Tree — the largest yellow-poplar tree in the state and popular Sipsey Wilderness attraction — and the fire has already impacted 657 acres as of 9:00 AM Wednesday. At the request of the Forest Service, Wild South’s Volunteer Wilderness Rangers have been on the scene to help evacuate hikers and to station rangers and other Wild South volunteers at the trailheads to prevent hikers from entering dangerous areas. Our efforts enabled the firefighters clear access to fight the fires. Wild South staff and our volunteers from across the state were able to evacuate nearly 100 hikers on Saturday from the Sipsey and prevent about the same number of people from entering the wilderness, keeping people safe from harm.
This week and as long as needed, Wild South staff and volunteer wilderness rangers will be working with the Forest Service to keep people off the trails and away from danger so that the firefighters can do their job. The Forest Service is also making every effort to keep the fire away from the Big Tree, and in their containment efforts they are being very protective of the wilderness character of this area.
Wild South’s staff, Mark Kolinski, Janice Barrett, Kim Waites and our countless volunteers have been working 8-12 hour days since Friday. They have all answered the call to protect our beloved Sipsey Wilderness and keep our fellow citizens safe.
With no rain in sight for the next week, we expect to be working this wildfire for some time.
We will be posting updates as we get them, so please stay tuned to this page as the story unfolds. We have also included news coverage of the fire and Wild South’s role in minimizing the damage.
Please feel free to contact Wild South at Janice@wildsouth.org, if you would like to volunteer or if you have any questions. If you are not able to volunteer, please make a donation to help support our efforts to mitigate this fire.
Click here for AL.com news coverage of the fire and Wild South’s mention for our efforts with the Forest Service.
UPDATES FROM THE FIELD:
Thursday, November 5, 8:00 AM:
The Forest Service has let us know that the recent Sipsey Wilderness closure orders issued during the wildfire will be rescinded today. Effective immediately, all Sipsey Wilderness trails are open for use, and the campfire ban has been lifted. Be aware that hazards exist in the burned area, such as stump holes and weakened trees, and watch out for them. Officially at this point, the fire is contained but not controlled, from which we can assume there are still smoldering fuels out there that could re-ignite if conditions become favorable.
A word on campfires: Everyone likes a campfire, but campfire impacts along some of the Sipsey Wilderness trails have gone beyond excessive. If you must have a campfire, please follow Leave No Trace to minimize the impacts. Keep your fire small, using only dead and downed wood that you can break by hand (you can leave your axes, saws, hatchets and machetes at home). Never leave a fire unattended. Burn all fuel to white ash. Make sure it is completely out and cool to the touch, then dispose of ashes and naturalize the area. Never burn trash. Show your love for the Sipsey!
Friday, October 30, 8:00 AM:
No change in trail closures through the weekend. Trails that remain closed are trail 209 from Borden Creek to the Rippey inholding, all of trail 224, the Bunyan Hill Road, trail 204, and trail 208, the Northwest Road, from the trail 223 intersection to the Hagood Creek bridge.
The Augusta Hotshots from Virginia will be engaged in mopping up operations today, as well as blowing off some of the containment lines of the fresh leaf fall and also trail rehabilitation activities. The area within the containment boundaries is restricted and hazardous, due to the existence of weakened trees, so visitors are prohibited from entering that area at this time. Look for all the trails to be opened sometime next week.
Wednesday, October 28, 9:00 AM:
Montgomery, AL (October 28, 2015) —- The USDA Forest Service announced that recent rain and increased moisture have greatly improved conditions, opening eight trails to visitors and containing the “Big Tree” wildfire located in the Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest to 75 percent.
According to Dave Casey, District Ranger for the Bankhead National Forest, some resources have been released from the “Big Tree” wildfire, with one hotshot fire crew from Virginia remaining to continue to monitor the fire line. Rain was much needed to slow the progress of the wildfire. “We really appreciate everyone coming together to support our firefighters while they protected the community from the threat of wildfires,” said Casey. “Firefighters are faced with dangerous tasks and their dedication is commended.” The incident has been turned over to Bankhead District employees to maintain.
A fire ban closure will remain in effect for the Sipsey Wilderness Area until November 30. Four trails in the Sipsey Wilderness – 204 Bee Branch Trail, 208 Northwest Road Horse Trail, 209 Sipsey River Trail and 224 Bunyan Hill Horse Trail continue to remain closed. Fall is a popular time of the year for outdoor enthusiasts. “We are encouraging the public to visit other trails throughout the Bankhead National Forest that are outside of the Sipsey Wilderness”, said Casey. Visitors can enjoy the Owl Creek Non-motorized Trail System that has three trail loops (25 miles) providing scenic and quiet hikes or horse-back riding. For a campfire experience, other areas throughout the Bankhead National Forest are open (except the Sipsey Wilderness). Anywhere campfires are used, extra caution is needed.
Tuesday, October 27, 8:00 AM:
As of last evening, the Big Tree Wildfire remains at 1,938 acres, and it is 75% contained. The Forest Service today will be releasing some of the resources which have been used all last week to control the fire. We’re hoping for more rain today to finish putting this fire to bed. An update from the Forest Service on trail closures is expected later this morning.
Monday, October 26, 9:30 AM:
Wild South volunteers are standing down today. Rain all day should keep wilderness visitor numbers low. No change in trail closures. Firefighters will continue to monitor the containment lines. Let’s hope we receive the inch or two of rain that we need from this precipitation event to put this fire to bed.
Thank you to our hardworking volunteers, who turned out in force the last two weekends to respond to this emergency. Thank you also to Roasted/42 Pizza Company on Court Street in Moulton, which donated plenty of pizza to feed all of our volunteers lunch on Saturday afternoon. Once again, this food was delivered to the trailhead by Wild South friend Melisa Ashburn.
Sunday, October 25, 4:00 PM:
Wild South’s VWR team is back off the trails and trailheads for today. There was only a little occasional light drizzle in the Sipsey Wilderness before noon today. The fire continues to burn, with the smoke plume traveling west southwest today. Our volunteer wilderness rangers on trail 202, the Randolph trail, were in smoke the entire time they were out there.
There is no change in trail closures, with only trails 200, 201, 202, and 203 being open. The campfire ban in the Sipsey Wilderness continues. The strategy of the wildland firefighters today was to control, monitor and maintain the containment lines. They had a brief respite from their firefighting operations today when they assisted in the emergency evacuation of a hiker with medical problems from trail 200. A Wild South VWR team encountered a hiker in distress on trail 200, the Borden trail, at about 10:00 AM this morning. Because they were carrying a Forest Service radio, they were able to call for assistance and a medical evacuation. Forest Service personnel, including a medic, the District Ranger and about 30 hotshots responded to the scene and had the hiker back to the Sipsey Recreation Area trailhead before noon. What an amazing response by some of the best emergency responders the Forest Service has available!
Saturday, October 24, 6:00 PM:
According to the Forest Service this morning, the Big Tree Wildfire has grown to 1,908 acres. Today’s strategy was to continue mop-up operations and monitor existing fire lines. It looks like a good chance of significant rain in the next few days. Keep your fingers crossed, since only rain will extinguish the fire and end this emergency.
Saturday, October 24, 8:00 AM:
No official word yet this morning from the Forest Service on the status of the Big Tree Wildfire. However, based on conversations with some of the firefighters exiting the wilderness late yesterday afternoon, rising humidity has decreased the intensity of the fire. A little light drizzle overnight in the area should have accelerated that trend. Containment lines are holding so far.
Wild South staff and volunteers will be posted at wilderness trailheads again today, ensuring that wilderness visitors have all the latest information on conditions and closures, including the campfire ban. Thanks to Moulton Foodland and manager Greg Morris for their generous donation of food and beverage to feed our volunteers over the weekend. And a big thank you to Melisa Ashburn for delivering the food Friday evening!
Friday, October 23, 9:00 AM:
Total acreage burned as of Thursday night is 1,518. The Forest Service has issued a fire ban within the Sipsey Wilderness, in effect from Oct. 22 until November 30 or until rescinded. Trail closures will remain the same through the weekend, with the only trails open being 200, 201, 202, and 203.
Forest Service managers are concerned that a high number of hikers using the only four open trails may be excessive for the natural resources and wilderness environment. According to Bankhead District Ranger Dave Casey, “There are other recreation areas to enjoy in the BNF while firefighters work hard to control the Big Tree wildfire.” Visitors can enjoy the Owl Creek Non-motorized Trail System that has three trail loops (total 25 miles), providing scenic and quiet hikes or horse-back riding. Anywhere campfires are used extra caution is needed.
Wild South strongly recommends that visitors to the Bankhead National Forest forego the use of campfires until this severe drought situation abates.
Thursday, October 22, 6:30 PM:
A brief evening update on the Big Tree Wildfire:
District Ranger Dave Casey shared with us late this afternoon that today the fire expanded mainly along its southern boundary, which means it was a backing fire. A “backing” fire burns into the wind, which means it burns slower and at a lower intensity. Also, the west containment line, trail 204 (the Bee Ridge trail), is holding, so the Big Tree is not in danger. Around 1,400 total acres burned so far. We’ll have an updated operations map for you tomorrow morning.
Thursday, October 22, 9:00 AM:
The Big Tree Wildfire has now consumed 1136 acres. Trail closures will remain the same as yesterday through the weekend. The only open trails are trails 200, 201, 202 and 203. A campfire closure order remains in effect for the Sipsey Wilderness until further notice.
Burnout operations conducted yesterday to strengthen fire containment lines were successful and proceeded without incident. According to the Forest Service, fire intensities in the areas of burnout operations remained low, which is good news. Burnout operations will continue today east on trail 208, the old Northwest Road.
The Forest Service recommends that visitors to the Bankhead this weekend consider using the Owl Creek Horse Trail System instead of the Sipsey Wilderness. While there is no campfire closure order outside of the wilderness, Wild South strongly recommends that overnight visitors forego campfires, due to the historically dry conditions right now in the Bankhead National Forest.
Wednesday, October 21, 9:00 AM:
Most recent estimate of the area burned is 657 acres, at 4 PM yesterday. Four additional trails will be closed, but probably just for today, due to planned burnout operations to harden the containment lines. Trails 223, the Braziel road, all of Trail 208, the Northwest Road, Trail 210, the Mitchell Ridge trail, and trail 207, the Braziel Creek trail, will all be temporarily closed today. Trails 204, 206, 224, 209 and the section of 208 from 223 to the Hagood Creek bridge continue to be closed until further notice.
Campfires continue to be prohibited within the Sipsey Wilderness. Pray for rain, everybody!
Tuesday, October 20, 6:40 AM:
Beginning Oct. 20, there will be a campfire restriction only in the Sipsey Wilderness. U.S. Forest Service fire personnel are taking immediate action to contain the fire that has temporarily closed five trails leading into the Sipsey Wilderness. The public living near the Sipsey Wilderness may see an increase in smoke and Forest Service personnel. Hikers planning to use trails in the Sipsey Wilderness and hunters in the Black Warrior Management Area are asked to check the Forest Service website, bulletin boards, Facebook and Twitter for a listing of open trails and status updates. The safety of the public and wildland firefighters is our number one priority.”
Until further notice the following five trails will remain closed and marked with yellow and black flagging: 204 Bee Branch, 206 Thompson Creek, 208 Northwest Road Trail from 223 junction to Hagood Bridge, 209 Sipsey River and 224 Bunyan Hill Wagon Trail/Road.
Open trails are 200 Borden, 201 Rippey, 202 Randolph, 203 Lookout, 207 Braziel, 208 Thompson to Gum Pond, 210 Mitchell Ridge and 223 Gum Pond.
Monday, October 19, 11:30 AM:
The fires has grown to 258 acres as of yesterday evening. The Forest Service is employing “light on the land” techniques to contain the fire. Extremely dry conditions with low humidity and extremely low fuel moisture have made this challenging. This will be a long-term fire event, and it is going to take rain to extinguish this fire. There has been no change in trail closures, but this is subject to change at any time.
Wild South’s Volunteer Wilderness Ranger team is in charge of wilderness visitor use management for the duration of this fire, under the direction of the USFS Bankhead District. We are strongly recommending that overnight visitors to the Sipsey Wilderness forego campfires until we get some rain. Conditions have reached historically dry extremes, and it’s just not worth the risk to the wilderness.
Be assured that the Forest Service is making every effort to keep the fire away from the Big Tree, and in their containment efforts they are being very protective of the wilderness character of this area. Firefighters are accessing the fire every day on foot, which entails an 8-10 mile round trip, and the only mechanized tools in use at this time to create fire breaks are leaf blowers. Trails and streams are being utilized to the fullest extent to create containment lines around this fire.
Wild South’s volunteer wilderness stewardship work is supported in part by grants from the National Forest Foundation and the Walker Area Community Foundation.