On the sixth day, they asked for good news and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler delivered that good news at the North Carolina Forest Service’s Incident Command Post at the Grindstone Fire. The fire inside Pilot Mountain State Park he announced was 80% contained as of Thursday morning.
Through the diligent work of nearly 100 firefighting personnel from the North Carolina Forest Service and North Carolina State Parks working in shifts, the Grindstone Fire remains within established lines of containment.
“The firefighters are doing well. Tired people, of course, but they are resting and eating well,” advised Eric Southern of Surry County Emergency Management.
“The Pilot Mountain fire is about 80% contained. It’s actually probably closer to 100% contained, but the definitions of contained and what’s manageable are different, so we’re calling it about 80% contained,” said Troxler.
“The dry conditions with no rain will only continue to increase fire dangers across the county,” Southern said. The firefighters are making sure that everything is thoroughly checked for hot spots or snags. Snags are dead or weakened trees that pose a hazard to firefighters as they can fall without warning.
What has been named the Grindstone Fire was determined to be an escaped campfire in an “undesignated area” officials said in a news release. It was a similar determination that an “escaped campfire” got out of control and was the cause of the Sauratown fire in mid-November.
Just this past weekend North Carolina Forest Service officials said they had seen “pockets” of reburn at Sauratown Mountain after having it been deemed under control. Such flare ups highlight the dangerous conditions that still exist and the need for the ongoing outdoor burning ban.
Southern reported that the Surry County Sheriff’s Office, the Fire Marshal’s Office, and the Forestry Service are having to investigate and manage an increase in burning incidents. Some are illegal materials being burned, but much is vegetative materials such as leaves that people are trying to clear out.
The state continues to have an outdoor burning ban in place and officials ask everyone to please hold off on burning anything during this time as the conditions are still ripe for fire. “It will not take much for another fire to start,” Southern warned.
“We would love to see a good soaking rain,” Troxler said, echoing residents across North Carolina. The commissioner noted however that no rain was seen in the long-term forecast until the middle of next week.
“I’m from the Piedmont, and, of course, Pilot Mountain is such an iconic sight from all over the Piedmont,” Troxler said. “When you see the images of Pilot Mountain on fire, it’s very upsetting to a lot of people. But the good news is the North Carolina Forest Service is always prepared for instances like this.”
“These fires are not only expensive to fight, but they are also very dangerous to the personnel that are fighting the fires especially when you are in rough terrain like we are here in the foothills,” he said. “There are so many bad things can happen when these fires get out of hand… it only takes one spark, or one misstep and then we have wildfires.”
Wildfires draw people’s attention for their scope and size, the images of plumes of smoke create uncertainty and fear for those living around the scene. When the smoke clears though, the fire will have done a necessary service to the park and the ecosystems it supports.
Chris Blanton of Blanton Forestry in Dobson said that the future well-being of the park may be improved by the burn. “It’s probably going to help the health of the forest. There will be more understory and herbaceous growth for wildlife next spring.”
“A lot of the tree species up there are fire resistant anyway, like chestnut oak,” he continued. “So, depending on how intense the fire actually got it may not have killed as many trees.”
That may be of cold comfort to folks who are yearning for outdoor time and a crisp air hike through Pilot Mountain State Park. A similar feeling faced the residents of Watauga County after they went through the Horton wildfire in 2016, or now faces the folks of McDowell County currently dealing with the still growing Pogue Mountain fire.
“Every time we have incidents like this, it brings back memories of 2016,” Troxler recalled, “when it looked like all the mountains of North Carolina were on fire and we had personnel from 30 some states to fight those fires.”
“So please be careful, don’t burn, and report any suspicious smoke or fires to local fire officials or to NC Forest Service… So, we can get on these fires quickly before they get to 1000 acres like the one that we’ve been fighting here at Pilot Mountain.”