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Seneca Rocks climbing routes, trails close as forest fire burns


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A forest fire sparked late Saturday on the west face of Seneca Rocks, one of West Virginia’s best known and most rugged natural features, continued to blaze across 50 acres of nearly sheer terrain on Monday, keeping about 25 firefighters busy trying to contain it, according to a spokeswoman for the Monongahela National Forest.

A smoldering pine log rests on a rocky slope on Monday at Seneca Rocks in this photo from the USDA Forest Service. About 25 firefighters were working to contain a 50-acre fire.
(Submitted photo)

The fire broke out at a point downslope from an observation platform near the top of the 3.4-mile-long Seneca Rocks Trail after fireworks had reportedly been seen being ignited in the vicinity of the rock formation on Saturday night. Monongahela National Forest spokeswoman Julie Fosbender said U.S. Forest Service law enforcement personnel are investigating the cause of the fire, but have so far not established its source.

On Sunday night, firefighters burned vegetation in the vicinity of the Seneca Rocks Trail viewing platform to protect it from the wildfire should it move upslope, and began building fire lines behind the platform to keep the fire from reaching nearby private property.

“Our biggest challenge is that we can’t get to the fire to extinguish it because the slope is too steep,” Fosbender said. Since firefighter safety is a top priority, fire crews are concentrating on containing the fire, she said. Fire lines have been established and were holding to the east and north of the blaze on the ridge atop the rock formation, which rises 900 feet above the North Fork of the Potomac River’s South Branch, and firefighters on Monday were scouting out prospective fire line sites near the western and southern bases of the cliff.

Firefighters battling the Seneca Fire include personnel from the Monongahela and George Washington-Jefferson national forests, the Harpers Ferry Job Corps Center and the National Park Service’s New River Gorge National River.

While most Appalachian forest fires occur during spring and fall, when there is an abundance of leaf litter to serve as fuel and humidity is generally lower than in summer months, the humidity dropped markedly on Sunday at Seneca Rocks, Fosbender said.

The sheer, fin-like cliffs at Seneca Rocks make the site popular with climbers, who have mapped more than 375 climbing routes on the crag. Forest Service officials closed the formation to climbers and hikers due to safety considerations until the fire is extinguished. The Seneca Rocks Discovery Center near the base of the cliffs remains open, as does the Monongahela National Forest’s nearby Seneca Shadows Campground.

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