Crews battle scores of wildfires in Virginia, including a blaze in Shenandoah National Park
Posted: March 22, 2024 - 2:00am

LURAY, Va. (AP) — Crews were battling scores of wildfires around Virginia on Thursday, including a fire affecting hundreds of acres at Shenandoah National Park, amid an elevated fire risk, officials said.

More than 100 new fires popped up Wednesday amid gusty winds and low relative humidity, affecting more than 2 1/2 square miles (6.47 square kilometers) across the state, many of them in the central part of the state, Virginia Department of Forestry spokesperson Cory Swift said by telephone.

Shenandoah County officials announced Thursday that five homes were lost due to a fire northwest of Strasburg, noting that the number may change as the area is assessed. Residents of homes that were not affected who evacuated may return, officials said in a news release. That fire and another large fire near Basye have been contained, and there are no known fatalities, officials said.

At least 16 fires were contained and hundreds of firefighters worked overnight to contain the others, Swift said. Amid high winds, officials were seeing some downed powerlines causing fires, he said.

A fire that started on private land in the Luray area of Page County spread very quickly into Shenandoah National Park, reaching about 450 acres (182.11 hectares) by Thursday morning, park spokesperson Claire Comer said by telephone. The majority of the fire is inside the 200,000-acre (80,937-hectare) park and is about 10% contained, she said. Officials are hoping for additional resources to arrive Thursday.

Smoke from a wildfire closed about 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) of Skyline Drive, the park announced Wednesday. Fire also closed sections of the Appalachian Trail and a fire ban was in effect for all of Shenandoah National Park.

Page County officials declared a state of emergency Wednesday evening as several communities were asked to evacuate and county schools were closed Thursday. Louisa County also declared a state of emergency and recommended evacuations in some communities, but by evening the fires were contained, officials said.

The National Weather Services Baltimore-Washington said in a social media post Wednesday that if people smelled smoke outdoors numerous wildfires in the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding areas were the likely source.

Wildfires were also reported in neighboring Maryland and West Virginia on Wednesday.

Crews contained a 60-acre fire in a wooded area in Barnesville, Maryland, in northwestern Montgomery County, that was believed to have been started by a downed power line, county Fire & Rescue Service spokesperson Pete Piringer said in a social media post. Another fire that broke out in a wooded area in Silver Spring on Wednesday night was visible from the Capital Beltway, he said.

Conditions were expected to be less elevated Thursday and precipitation expected in the region Friday could help dampen fuels and soak the ground, Swift said.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency Thursday in the northeastern counties of Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, and Pendleton. The move was meant to ensure the allocation of necessary resources and to expedite emergency response efforts, the governor's office said in a statement.

In Hardy County, an undetermined number of structures have burned from wind-whipped flames, according to a Facebook post from the Bruceton Brandonville Volunteer Fire Department. The department, located in Preston County, has sent a small crew to Hardy County to assist.