Wildfires, smoke shroud southern end of the Appalachian Trail

ASSOCIATED PRESS Smoke from the Party Rock fire near Lake Lure spreads as emergency services and the North Carolina Forest Service work to contain the blaze Wednesday at Lake Lure, N.C.

ATLANTA (AP) — All but a few of the nation’s largest active wildfires Thursday were burning in the South, where a relentless drought has turned pine trees into torches and forced evacuations in dozens of communities in the Appalachian foothills.

High winds, unseasonably warm temperatures and weeks without rain have combined to spark blaze after blaze in the dry brush and trees. Numerous teams of firefighters reported blazes running up slopes and down ravines as they struggled to protect hundreds of threatened structures.

Thursday’s national drought report shows 41.6 million people in parts of 15 southern states living in drought conditions. The worst drought is in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, but extreme drought also is spreading into the western Carolinas, and Kentucky and Tennessee had the most fires.

Nearly all the active large wildfires nationwide Thursday were in the Southeast, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Nearly a dozen large fires were uncontained, with 14 more breaking out Thursday alone.

“Right now we’re kind of holding our own,” said Jennifer Turner, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky’s state Division of Forestry. “We’ve been able to get control over some of the smaller fires.”

Nearly 390 firefighters and support crews and half a dozen water-dumping helicopters were battling 20 fires in Kentucky Thursday that together have burned nearly 20,000 acres, Turner said.