BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – As the crisp autumn air blows through the valley, the warm sun peeks over the Blue Ridge Mountains, pushing through a smoky hue—emerging brighter with each minute that passes. As its glimmer grows above the treetops and burns the morning dew off the golden leaves, it illuminates a red countryside barn. It's been three weeks since the wildfires started blazing through northern Georgia's forests creating a murky fog that blanketed the farm-fresh country air.
Tucked deep in the mountains is downtown Blue Ridge, Ga. Amidst the electric blue sky, an American flag waves proudly in the center of town, where the streets are lined with restaurants, shops and galleries, and its sidewalks are saturated with a mix of tourists and locals.
Just outside the quaint, small town lies cabin country and an outdoorsman's paradise.
The smell of burning wood and brush has faded, the intense smoldering has started to lift and tourists aren't shying away from their favorite getaway spot. Locals, however, are still reeling from the drought that initially ignited many of the southern wildfires, stretching across Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
A shallow, foot-wide stream of water flows through the crack-filled dried-up dirt. Leading to a barren Lake Blue Ridge, it's a swift reminder of how far the water has drastically receded.
It’s been more than a month since Atlanta has seen a drop of rain—and before that it was a month earlier. It’s been a long, incredibly dry few months. In fact, the last time the city saw more than an inch of rain was on Sept. 2.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal increased water restrictions across much of the state last week as a result of the deepening drought in the southeast. The state has shifted to a Level 2 response in 52 northern Georgia counties, including Blue Ridge.
Resident Mike Kosentino, an avid trail runner, has always loved Blue Ridge. From the time he vacationed and hiked in the mountains, until the day he purchased his farm there three years ago, it’s been his home. And while he owns a business in Atlanta, he and his family live in Blue Ridge.
But he’s seen the drought take over his breathtaking views and his farm, Charlie Creek Farm.
“We kind of looked at what’s been going on in the National Forest and certainly keeping an eye on the weather. For us it’s been interesting to see the creeks, and see, even our animals and livestock, that we have struggled to find water and keep the grass moist.”
His family is doing a lot more heavy lifting with the ongoing drought, Kosentino said.
“My kids who are responsible for keeping the animals nourished doing a lot more work than what they were last spring with the well and the barnyard now being dry, a lot of trips to the pond in order to fill buckets and get the troughs and what have you filled back up so that just makes things a little bit more challenging.”
Everything around him, he said, seems to grow browner and drier more quickly than he’s ever seen. And it’s made his wells run dry—as well as some local creeks, lakes and tributaries, he said.
“Whether there are feeding places where people would otherwise be doing fishing, whether it has to do with putting a kayak or some kind of boat in the water that’s become very, very difficult. If you take a look at Lake Blue Ridge or some of the homes that are on the lake themselves, you’ll see wide swaths of land now where a dock is completely beached or where the ability to out a boat in the water is completely gone,” Kosentino said.
Currently, there are still 38 large fires burning in the southeast—totaling 127,101 acres under siege and are being fought by 6,000 firefighters from across the country, the Southern Area Coordination Center said. The Rough Ridge Fire, alone, has spread to 27,870 acres and is 66 percent contained.
Surrounding nearby Lake Blue Ridge, where the mountains are situated as a colorful backdrop, crunchy autumn leaves blanket the ground, smothered in a smoky, soot dust. It’s what’s left of the wildfire that once framed the mountain top in a fiery halo.
The wind, however, has persisted—keeping the air quality unpredictable.
Kosentino’s position away from the farm, he said, takes on another facet of the drought and the wildfires: air quality.
As the owner of Big Peach Running Company, he said, he is prone to being outdoors, running or hiking.
“Both my family and I as well as a lot of my friends like to do trail running, hiking, spend time certainly in the National Forest.”
But depending on the time of day, the air can be pretty harsh to for any cardio efforts. Especially if the wind is blowing from other nearby wildfires.
“Certainly late in the day, as the temperatures rise you can see more of the blue haze and I think those that are maybe likely to be winded even hiking or running up hill are going to find it even that much more difficult.”
During the height of the wildfires, in the dark, early morning hours when the wind was gentle, the air was cleaner—more breathable. But as the day wore on, Josh Davenport, a barista at The Vault coffee shop, said the air quality dropped.
“You could walk outside and it was literally so thick you could cut it with a knife. It was pretty bad,” the 23-year-old Blue Ridge, Ga., native, said as he robotically frothed a pitcher of milk, then slowly poured it over a steaming, freshly brewed cup of espresso.
Like many residents, hiking is one of his favorite things to do, especially with his dogs.
“I love taking them out into the woods, and like, going swimming and stuff.”
But when the wind blew, the smoke grew dense.
“I was able to in the morning times, it’s not been that bad, towards the evening and afternoon times, it’s been more like, smoky in the air and you could definitely smell everything. But in the morning times, I’ve been able to take them out once in the past week—normally I take [the dogs] out at least like four or five times.”
The budding artist said, he worries about his four-legged pals.
“I went for a drive; I was going to go to town and I just turned, halfway into town, I turned right back around because Spinky was sneezing in the car. I was like, ‘Ugh, I’m over it. I’m going back home,’” Davenport said of his bulldog. “He gets these sneezing fits sometimes and the smoke was really affecting that, so I just took him back home."
Howard Slaughter, owner of Blue Ridge Coin Laundry, said his business volunteered to wash the wildfire firefighters’ clothing, because it’s what his community does.
Slaughter, who’s owned his business for eight years, said they get about a dozen loads every day. A team of three picks up the clothes, washes them and then delivers them back to the firefighters.
“They have no place to clean their laundry. They have no way of having clean clothes, so we offered the service and they accepted it,” Slaughter said in a thick southern drawl.
His dryers, he said, have a much larger capacity than home dryers and the washers can wash and spin the clothes faster, without ruining his machines from the smoke and soot.
“They needed a service and we’re a service-oriented company, a service-oriented community. We take care of people who take care of us—and they’ve certainly taken care of us,” he said, his eyes lifting and mouth turning upward. The creases in his cheeks deepen, become more prominent, as a simple smile comes over his face.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be out in the middle of nowhere, fighting a fire and you don’t know where it’s going to go next. And they’re working 12-, 15-hour days, they don’t have time to do laundry; they don’t have time to rest, probably."
Slaughter has lived in Blue Ridge for more than 20 years and knows it like the back of his callused and weathered hands—indicating decades’ worth of an honest day's work.
“It’s home. It’s just a good place to live, good people. Other than the occasional smoky stuff we have going on, it’s just a marvelous place to live. And in the end, you value your home, you value where your home’s at—and I value my home and value the place it’s set in, Blue Ridge Mountains,” Slaughter said.
“If you want to come to Blue Ridge, now is as good a time as any because it’s going to get better, it’s not going to get worse. It’s going to get a lot better,” he said, reassuring the public and future visitors.
Kelly Morris, a tourist from Tampa, Fla., traveled to Blue Ridge for a mountain vacation with her husband, Ryan and two dogs in tow—one eager to meet each passerby, the other timid and hiding under Kelly’s feet.
It’s her birthday, plus this area holds a special place in her heart.
“We came back because Florida doesn’t have many season so we’d like to see fall before it ended here in Blue Ridge and it’s kind of nostalgic for us.”
About a year and a half ago Ryan brought her to Blue Ridge, where they stayed in a cabin and he proposed to her.
The newlyweds and enthusiastic hikers didn’t even know about the wildfires until they started driving through Georgia, she said.
“I was like ‘Do you smell that?’ We rolled the windows down and you could smell the fires and then all of the sudden we got into this huge cloud of smoke and I’m like there must be fires going on in the forest.”
She was nervous about the cabin, fearing it might be covered in smoke. But they were in luck.
“Thank goodness, literally a minute as soon as you drive out, our cabin was right there and it was perfectly clear but it was a little nerve racking.”
Kelly said that their trip into Blue Ridge was amazing and chock full of hikes nights in the Jacuzzi and chasing fireflies.
“It’s been perfect.”