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Southern Fires Rage With 41.6 Million Now Living in Drought

Assistant Chief Brent Masey, of the Highway 58 Fire Department in Harrison, Tenn., looks up as a helicopter carrying fire retardant flies over as Masey keeps watch on a wildfire, in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. Nov. 10, 2016.

Unseasonable warmth and no rain have deepened a drought that's igniting forest fires across the southeastern U.S. and forcing people to evacuate dozens of homes in the Appalachian Mountains.

Thursday's national drought report shows 41.6 million people in parts of 15 southern states now live in drought conditions. The worst is in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, but extreme drought also is spreading into western North and South Carolina.

All but two of the 61 active large wildfires nationwide Thursday were in the Southeast, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and most were being fought in Tennessee and Kentucky. Nearly a dozen large fires were uncontained, with 14 more breaking out Thursday alone.

In mountainous western North Carolina, people living on five roads near one roaring blaze were advised to leave their homes, and residents of 38 more homes in another part of the state were told to evacuate ahead of a separate wildfire.

Firefighters were battling three active wildfires on Thursday in Alabama, where 80 percent of the land is choked by the drought that is drying up streams and lakes and killing plants, and authorities this week extended a ban on outdoor burning to cover the entire state.

More than 1,100 fires total have charred nearly 12,000 acres of Alabama land in the last month. Near-constant wildfires have left some areas covered in a smoky haze.

Tuscaloosa and Birmingham have both tied or broken records for days without measurable rain; neither has had more than sprinkles since late September. And Noccalula Falls, a popular attraction on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama, has been bone dry for weeks.

“It's fed by Black Creek and the creek is dry. There's not even a trickle going over the falls,” Kaila Fair, manager at the adjoining campground, said Thursday.

A large wildfire burning through a rugged and thinly populated part of the north Georgia mountains this week created a smoky haze over Atlanta as winds blew the smoke into the city.

In Tennessee, seven firefighters were trapped Tuesday evening in a forest fire west of Kingsport, causing them to declare “Mayday.” All seven firefighters were later accounted for and none was injured, said Gary Murrell, director of the Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency.

In Kentucky, the state Department for Public Health this week issued a smoke inhalation advisory for the southeastern part of the state due to poor air quality from ongoing wildfires.

Drought conditions are persisting in parts of the Florida panhandle and portions of Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri, Thursday's U.S. Drought Monitor shows. The report is produced through a partnership between the federal government and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.