DOBSON — If the ears of officials at the North Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation were burning Monday night, there was good reason.
While no officials from the department were on hand as the Surry County Board of Commissioners received an update on November’s fire at Pilot Mountain State Park, they received plenty of blame.
The update came as the board met for its regularly-scheduled meeting in the Commissioner’s Meeting Room at the Surry County Government Center.
During the update, North Carolina Forestry Service official Brian Elam, whose department took over fighting the blaze, said the planned controlled burn should have never taken place.
“I thought they’d have more common sense than to burn on such windy days,” he said.
It was a sentiment echoed by the board.
“I think the one error in your judgement is in assuming the government has common sense,” Commissioner Larry Phillips commented.
Noting that in his opinion, the fire should have never been started under the blustery conditions, Elam said a comprehensive review of the policies that led to the Nov. 8 fire was under way and the outcome should be forthcoming.
“There are going to be a lot of changes made to the burn program,” he said. “Hopefully, within the next couple of weeks or so, the changes will be announced in a public document.”
And the forest service official said there could be legal action as a result of the fire.
“There will probably be a written warning taken out, but I don’t expect there to be any fine or anything involved,” he said.
But that did little to quell the obvious frustration among the board.
Commissioner R.F. “Buck” Golding, who attended a follow-up community meeting, cited the lack of public information released during the blaze.
“The thing that bothered me most about it from the local standpoint is the lack of warning people received, especially those people who have breathing problems in the community,” he said. “It seemed like there was no backup plan in place should the fire get out of hand.”
“What I want to hear tonight is something will be done to inform the citizens,” he said. “They were kept out of the loop. This county has the capacity to not put its citizens behind the curve.”
Elam said it’s something his department “can do better.”
“The state park service obviously didn’t get the word out, and by the time my department took over, my plan had to be more about controlling the fire than working with the media to get the word out.”
While Elam noted the fire wasn’t catastrophic, he acknowledged things could have been handled differently.
Responding to critics who were angry local fire departments weren’t used to battle the blaze, he noted he was holding them in reserve should the fire threaten standing structures surrounding the park.
“The terrain was so bad we didn’t want more people in jeopardy,” he said. “And we wanted to save them should the fire get down and burn toward structures. We wanted to keep them in reserve so that should it get that low we’d have some resources to provide structure protection.”
Elam said that following a Dec. 19 meeting on the state level to review the incident, sweeping changes can be expected.
“They’re in the process of rewriting their entire procedure and burn protocol,” he said. “I’m hoping it will be available within the next few weeks.”
But the board said it was telling that no one was on hand from the Department of Parks and Recreation.
“(Forestry Service officials) are here taking the heat and the park service isn’t even here,” said Commissioner Paul Johnson.
“The people who should be held accountable and responsible are tap dancing around the issue,” Phillips added.
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.