'I'm worried': Wildfire threatens community devastated by eastern Kentucky flooding

Posted at 9:26 AM, Nov 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-10 10:05:16-05

BREATHITT COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — With the flames just a stone's throw away from his home, Eulas Fugate and neighbor Bruce Dryden did everything they could to keep a wildfire away and save Fugate's home.

They used shovels, rakes, and even a leaf blower to stop the fire, one of multiple fires burning in Breathitt County Wednesday.

"This is getting a little too close to the house for comfort I think," Dryden said, as he worked to suppress the fire line.

The home they were working to save wasn't a permanent one. Instead, it was a FEMA trailer. Fugate lost his home and everything in it during last summer's flooding.

"After the flood not much frightens me no more," Fugate said.

Both men live in Watts, which is on the road to the community of Lower River Caney, one of the communities hit hardest by the flooding. The site of multiple deaths, flood survivor James Henson said half the community's homes were washed away.

Now, he's worried about the still burning wildfire coming off the nearby hilltop and reaching his home. He's tried to be proactive.

"I've been blowing leaves the past couple of days," Henson said as he looked across a valley illuminated by pockets of flame. "I've already lost one home I don't want to lose another."

Smoke from the fire and others reached the county seat of Jackson, where Judge Executive Jeff Noble said it had been difficult to breathe earlier in the day, with the smoke thicker and ash falling in spots.

Even more homes would be at risk in River Caney had it not been for the flooding, he said. Only about 30 remain.

A red flag warning was in place Wednesday night and Noble said he was especially concerned about the threat of wind picking up overnight. It could be terrible, he said.

The threat of the fire left him worried about a community that's already lost so much.

"It just feels like it's one thing after another," Noble said. "There's not much you can do about fire and water."

A red flag warning was issued, he said.

The state's forestry division had been working to fight the wildfires. With the fire still burning, they left before dark.

A local fire chief told LEX 18 on last check the fire was up in the hills, 500 feet away from homes. He said if it got closer to homes people should call 911.

Fugate's neighbor said they tried but weren't successful in reaching authorities. The fire couldn't have been more than 50 feet from their homes. So, Fugate and Dryden got to work, taking it upon themselves to protect the property Fugate had left.

After LEX 18 shared the chief's message with them, they gave 911 another call. This time, a local volunteer fire crew from Watts-Caney was sent.

By the time they arrived, the neighbors had already put most of the nearby flames out.

In the tight-knit community, putting his life on the line to save a neighbor's home is something he wouldn't think twice about. He knows it's something Fugate would do for him.

"I don't think there would be anyone up and down this creek that wouldn't come running if someone called them up," Dryden said.