BROOKSIDE, Ala. – Wildfires are charring hundreds of acres daily in the South as drought conditions worsen across the region, and the heavy, widespread rains that officials say are needed to end the threat are nowhere in sight.
A crew using bulldozers worked to put out a wildfire that spread gray smoke across the rural community of Brookside about 20 miles northwest of Birmingham on Thursday, and another fire that began Wednesday, damaging several structures, was still burning but under control on the eastern edge of the metro area.
In Georgia, a fire that blackened dozens of acres around the city of Rome was still smoldering, and officials said the fire danger rating was at its highest across a wide area that included much of metro Atlanta.
The lack of storms means lightning probably didn't cause the fires. Authorities suspect simple carelessness — like tossing cigarette butts on dry ground — caused some of the blazes, while others could be arson.
Sooty and sweating after hours atop a bulldozer cutting fire breaks in woods near rural Brookside, firefighter Jason Berry of the Alabama Forestry Commission said he has fought about 50 fires in the last 30 days in central Alabama. Helping people is an "adrenalin rush," he said, but never knowing when the string of blazes will end is exhausting.
"You may be cooking supper and the next thing you know you get a phone call and you've got to head out the door without supper and you've got to stop at a fast-food restaurant and grab something on the way and you may grab a little bit extra because you know you could be there awhile," Berry said during a break.
Nearby, firefighter Brad Lang used a long-neck can to dribble a mixture of gasoline and diesel on to dry grass and leaves, setting back fires to stop the spread of a roughly 250-acre blaze by eliminating potential fuel. The fire grew so quickly it created its own breeze by pulling air into the flames.
"It's just an animal. It's eating. It's just sucking everything that way," said Brad Lang.
Wildfires have burned more than 12,000 acres statewide in Alabama in the last 30 days, or about 400 acres a day. The latest federal statistics show the entire Southeast is locked in a severe drought, and forecasters say no substantial rainfall is predicted.
Alabama has banned outdoor fires across a wide area, and Georgia has stopped issuing burn permits in some counties.