OHIOPYLE – Eric Martin was driving up Sugarloaf Road to go mountain biking late Thursday afternoon when he noticed a haze in the air and the unmistakable stench of a wildfire in the forest around Ohiopyle State Park.
As co-owner of Falls City Pub restaurant and Wilderness Voyageurs located on the northern side of the Youghiogheny River, he wondered if his businesses could be in danger and began looking for a plume of smoke.
Moments later, the Ohiopyle-Stewart Volunteer Fire Department’s whistle began blaring, confirming his fears of a wildfire somewhere in the 20,500-acre park.
His heart sunk when he soon learned the fire originated on the northern side of the river and was only about 3 ½ miles away from his businesses as it was slowly creeping toward them. It eventually jumped a ridge, he said, and moved about two miles from the borough.
“It was too close for comfort,” Martin said. “It was incredibly windy. We’re familiar with how fast those fires can spread. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it was.”
Shortly after 5 p.m., the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources mobilized its Bureau of Forestry to contain the wildfire with the help of at least eight local volunteer fire departments, according to state park officials. By nightfall, the sky over Ohiopyle glowed orange as the fire in the Victoria Flats section of the state park moved closer to town in the tree canopy – something Martin said he typically only saw while living out west where forest fires are prevalent.
“To see a full-on canopy fire, it was pretty overwhelming,” Martin said as he and his staff watched helplessly from the parking lot as they began to wonder if they should move the rafting company’s trucks.
The wind picked up around 10:30 p.m., but it was quickly followed by drops of rain. Soon, the skies opened up and drenched the area, helping firefighters as they tried to stop the flames from spreading. By 11 a.m. Friday, state park officials announced they had contained 80% of the fire and were working to extinguish the remaining portions.
As of 4 p.m. Friday, Ken Bisbee, park manager, said the fire was fully contained and crews had demobilized.
“The fire was in a remote area of the park and will not affect any outdoor activities with the exception of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. The fire has burned across the trail between mile posts 2 and 3 and I believe that Laurel Ridge State Park has made the trail off limits until a trail crew can assess and remove hazardous burned trees early next week,” Bisbee said.
The fire burned roughly 200 acres of land in an area of the park near Rock Spring Road that connects to a remote portion of Laurel Highlands Trail. No structures were damaged, and the cause of the fire was not immediately known. A separate forest fire was also reported on state game lands near Dunbar-Ohiopyle Road, according to Fayette County emergency management officials.
A post on Ohiopyle State Park’s Facebook page thanked the park staff, the Bureau of Forestry members and volunteer firefighters who “worked tirelessly to get this fire under control” overnight.
Martin said he was thankful for the quick response by the DCNR and the numerous fire departments that worked to contain the wildfire.
“Ohiopyle has a very active volunteer fire department. They were on it. So super thankful for them for what they do all the time. We are a very small town that has to deal with many, many visitors, so it can get stretched thin. These guys and girls are doing a great job,” Martin said, while also praising the DCNR for “investing in their wildfire capabilities.”
Staff writer Mark Hofmann contributed to this report.