An aggressive wildfire that authorities believe was started by a passing train menaced homes and businesses dotting Mission Ridge a mile south of downtown Rossville, Ga., on Friday afternoon.
The column of smoke billowing from the fire between McFarland Avenue and Hogan Road could be seen for miles. Along Battlefield Parkway, 10-to-15-foot flames raced up against the roadway, engulfing small, fully green trees in seconds.
Members of a single family were evacuated from their home, which sits a couple of hundred feet up the ridge from Battlefield Parkway, but thanks to the response of firefighters no one was injured and the home was not damaged.
"We realized the fire was pushing toward the top of the ridge, which put this house and a large outbuilding with some cars in it directly in line," said Walker County Emergency Services Assistant Chief Marlin Thompson.
The cause of the fire has not been definitively identified, but Thompson said the culprit was likely a train traveling through the area that could have sent sparks into the underbrush.
"It's consistent with a train going through, because we were chasing other fires down Mission Ridge on the railroad tracks as well," he said.
Shortly after 4 p.m., drivers were still making their afternoon commute home along Battlefield Parkway while driving through an eye-stinging cloud of smoke, passing only a few feet away from the fire edging along the road.
In a span of minutes, a wave of flames rolled over a hillside next to the road, leaving behind a patch of grass and brush that was burned to a crisp as the blaze inched eastward from the railroad tracks.
Several hours later, a line of fires could still be seen from McFarland Avenue in the woods along the ridge where Thompson said they had been fighting other blazes.
In the 900 block of Hogan Road, the pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, Kevin Weaver, stood in the parking lot of his church with some neighbors, squinting up the ridge as bits of ash fell from the sky.
The homes of his neighbors ran along the treeline, and burned patches of forest could be seen a stone's throw from their back doors. No firefighters were in sight, but the residents had been told to call immediately if they felt the fire was getting too close.
"It's very scary," Weaver said. "They told us to keep an eye on things and call 911 if we sense any danger at all."
Weaver's home sits next to the church, which is a comfortable distance from the forest, but he said the smoke and flames were still disconcerting.
"I'm just worried for our house and our church and all our stuff. We don't know what's going to happen," he said.
On the other side of the ridge, at the corner of McFarland Avenue and Battlefield Parkway, Bobby Blevins said he ran up from his shop, B&B Auto Service, around 3 p.m. when he saw the smoke to make sure the flames weren't going to endanger his business.
He said he and his son reached the railroad tracks and immediately saw a wide line of fire running south, eating the underbrush as it went, but it hadn't jumped over the rail line to their side of the tracks. They were met by three other men, one of them a firefighter, who were there to ensure it didn't jump the tracks.
"We went up there and were watching it, but the wind was blowing that way," he said while gesturing away from the shop.
Blevins said one of his first thoughts was that the fire could have been started by a train because another blaze began that way in the same area several years ago. He said a train came through just 30 minutes before he started noticing the smoke Friday.
By nightfall, Thompson said, no other homes were in immediate danger and firefighters had worked to protect what structures were in the area. He said bulldozers were on scene to cut fire breaks, as were several fire companies.
Jeremy Buckles, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tenn., said the area could expect a tenth to a quarter of an inch of rain today that could help control whatever remains of the blaze this morning.
"Relative humidities are going to be a lot higher than they were [Friday], and a more moist atmosphere should help dampen some of those fuels," Buckles said.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.
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