HAYESVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- At least 20 wildfires in North Carolina are being investigated as suspected arson, officials said, as firefighters from across the country focused a pocket of fires in the bone-dry southern Appalachian mountains.
A division of the U.S. Forest Service said fires have been burning on more than 25 square miles in the Nantahala National Forest in the western part of North Carolina. Across the South, relentless drought has turned pine trees into matchsticks and forced people from their homes in dozens of communities.
The forest fires in western North Carolina are forcing the state to close several state parks so that the people who work there can help fight the fires.
Don Reuter of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation says the following state parks are closed starting Friday: Gorges, New River, Mount Mitchell, Elk Knob, Lake James and the Mount Jefferson State Natural Area. South Mountain and Chimney Rock state parks closed earlier.
Reuter says it's never an easy decision to close parks but the priority now is protecting life and property.
More than 5,000 firefighters and support staff from around the nation are trying to suppress these fires, said Shardul Raval, director of fire and aviation management for the southern region of the U.S. Forest Service.
The effort includes about 40 aircraft, including three large air tankers flying out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Tens of thousands of acres of forest have burned and about a dozen of the largest fires were uncontained, the forest service said.
WSOC-TV reports firefighters from all over the state are coming in to help out.
State and federal fire officials say portions of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure communities are now under evacuation orders due to the Party Rock Fire. The evacuation was prompted by a major fire run up to and crossing the Shumont Mountain containment line Friday.
High winds and temperatures and weeks without rain have combined to spark blaze after blaze in the unusually dry landscape. Numerous teams reported wind-driven fires racing up slopes and down ravines as they struggled to protect hundreds of threatened structures.
"It just smells like a campfire" along the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia, said Carlie Gentry, who works at the Mountain Crossings store at Walasi-yi, a popular stop for hikers.
"For weeks up here we've been having smoke, but it is getting more intense for sure," Gentry said. Typically, the view stretches for miles, she said. Now, "you can hardly see to the next ridge."
The national drought report shows 41.6 million people in parts of 15 Southern states living in drought conditions. The worst is in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, but extreme drought also is spreading into the western Carolinas. Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina all have fierce fires.
The long-range Accuweather forecast for Asheville doesn't show any rain relief in sight and with humidity so low in the normally lush Appalachians and Great Smoky Mountains, authorities are bracing for more. North Carolina's Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for a fourth of his state's 100 counties, to help with evacuations and provide more firefighting assets.
More than 560 firefighters and staff from at least 40 states were battling 18 blazes in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina, and state climatologist Rebecca Ward said some counties are having one of their driest years in 105 years of record-keeping.
"Additional crews, engines, helicopters and air tankers continue to arrive from all across the country to help with the firefighting effort," fire managers told residents Thursday.
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.