Madison County wildfire expands to 425 acres near Shenandoah National Park

By: - October 31, 2023 12:04 am

Crews from the Virginia Department of Forestry and partner agencies meet for a morning situation brief while fighting the Madison County fire. (Courtesy of the Virginia Department of Forestry)

A wildfire that began a week ago on 20 acres in central Virginia’s Madison County has expanded to 425 acres near Shenandoah National Park and is expected to grow while firefighters construct a broader containment line to stop the blaze’s spread. 

“The objective is to burn out the fuel (leaves, fallen trees, branches, etc.) between the fire lines,” said Virginia Department of Forestry spokesperson Greg Bilyeu in an email. “While this approach results in a larger fire in the short term, implementing this strategy will help us achieve our objective of providing firefighter and public safety while protecting homes and other critical infrastructure.” 

To date, no structures have been damaged by what the agency is calling the Quaker Run Fire, after a nearby roadway. The forestry agency says the property is privately owned and lies near both the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area and the Shenandoah National Park.

Bilyeu said officials haven’t figured out the cause of the conflagration yet. While an investigation is underway, he said the department’s first priority is managing and halting the fire. As of Monday afternoon, the Department of Forestry estimated it was 35% contained. 

Firefighters are in the process of digging a containment line — a perimeter that deprives a fire of any fuel source, stopping it from progressing any farther — around 650 acres surrounding the wildfire. 

“This fire will quickly run out of fuel when it reaches the firelines crews are creating that will prevent its progress past the 650-acre containment area,” said VDOF Chief of Fire and Emergency Response John Miller in a release issued Saturday, when the fire had expanded to cover 390 acres. “As long as weather conditions don’t shift, we anticipate this fire will be fully contained within the next few days.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor operated by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Madison County is currently experiencing abnormal dryness and, in the western part of the county, severe drought. 

“Dry conditions, lower humidity and higher winds definitely assist conditions for wildfires,” Bilyeu said. However, he continued, “the terrain in this location is the main challenge.” 

The Department of Forestry has described the area where the fire is burning as both “steep and difficult to access.” 

Bilyeu said the Quaker Run Fire, occurring during Virginia’s fall fire season, is “somewhat average for this time of year” because of the availability of dead leaves and dry grasses and the tendency of people to burn yard debris in the fall. 

While he emphasized that officials have not yet determined the cause of the blaze, he noted that “escaped burning debris is the leading cause of wildfires in Virginia.” 

“With a few precautions, folks can dramatically reduce the chances of a fire escaping their control,” he said. “Also — before burning, everyone should make sure to check with local officials for burning-related ordinances or burn bans.” 

In 2016, the Rocky Mount Fire in Shenandoah National Park burned more than 10,000 acres, becoming what officials called the second-largest fire in park history. And in 2011, a lightning strike ignited a fire in Great Dismal Swamp in southern Virginia that burned for 111 days. As of Monday, the Virginia Department of Forestry’s public fire response map listed several other blazes around the state, including a 100-acre fire on Parrott River Road in Pulaski County and another 100-acre fire in Buchanan County.

The Virginia Department of Forestry reports that every year, the state sees an average of 700 fires affecting just under 9,500 acres.  

“Each year in Virginia, more than 60 homes and other structures are damaged or destroyed by wildland fire, although agency suppression efforts are credited with directly protecting more than 460 homes and 280 other structures, collectively worth more than 60 million dollars,” the department states on its website

Virginia’s fall fire season, one of two times of the year when the risk of fire is highest, runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 30. During this period, fallen leaves and dead vegetation provide fuel for flames, while winds and variably warm temperatures can help them spread. 


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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.