PILOT MOUNTAIN — A fire on Pilot Mountain has consumed about 675 acres and is 80 percent contained as of Monday afternoon, according to park officials.
Initial reports set the amount of acreage burned at 800 but the amount was reduced late Monday because of more accurate mapping of the actual containment line using GPS data, according to North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation Public Information Officer Charlie Peek.
He added that damage has been confined to acreage that has burned and some benches in a visitors center being burned. Peek confirmed that more than an acre of private property had been burned Sunday morning when some burning debris had blown over the fire containment line off Pinnacle Hotel Road on the southside of the mountain.
“We are strongly manning that portion of our fire line,” explained Peek. “This is because of the winds. It looks like the fire has topped out at 800 acres within a 1,000-acre containment area.”
Peek said a public information meeting was scheduled at Pinnacle View Baptist Church Monday night in the Shoals community. It was hosted by the North Carolina Forest Service as well as the state Division of Parks and Recreation. Officials planned to outline the time line of events, planning and choices of tactics to fight the blaze. Officials also were on hand to answer questions from the public about the fire.
“We are using some local resources (personnel) now on a limited basis to help us wet down the containment lines,” said Peek. Officials also were keeping a hopeful eye on the sky with early weather forecasts calling for a chance of rain Monday night with a 60 percent chance of rain that could accumulate to four-tenths of an inch.
According to officials, as of 6 p.m. Monday, the fire had backed down Pilot Mountain to established fire breaks (containment lines) with some pockets of unburned fuel continuing to smolder. The emphasis now shifts to continued patrols and mopping up in the area followed by determining the rehabilitation of bulldozer constructed fire breaks.
Dead trees burning continued to be a safety hazard along roads and trails in the fire area Monday. Officials expected smoke from residual burning for several days unless there is a soaking rain over the fire area, with smoke being a problem at night if temperatures cause it to settle into low-lying areas.
“Any rain at all would help us suppress and keep this at bay,” said Peek. “The fire has moved slowly and that has allowed us to strengthen our lines. It’s given us a reason for optimism because it has behaved this way.”
Local forecasts Monday called for higher humidity and light rain that will help to suppress the fire but not put it out.
Forest Service Information Officer David Brown said the fire’s intensity had been low, burning dead wood, leaves and undergrowth with little damage to standing timber. Pilot Mountain State Park will remain closed until the fire is controlled and park personnel are able to examine all trails, public facilities and affected areas.
According to Surry County Emergency Service Director John Shelton, the fire started on Thursday as a yearly prescribed burn intended to prevent forest fires to get out of control after embers jumped fire lines.
Shelton indicated eight local volunteer fire departments were called out to help Thursday afternoon. After 30 minutes, officials thought the fire had been contained to a three-acre area just before 8 p.m. Three departments remained to help park officials extinguish the blaze which was visible for miles.
North Carolina Forest Service County Ranger Brian Elam characterized the fire as a backing fire, one which advances down hill, not a running fire.
“What took two or three hours to burn from the top of the mountain down would have been a lot faster if it had been the other way,” said Elam. “That would have been a complete catastrophe. This slow advance allowed us to get our lines set up.” He also said fire suppression efforts had been hindered by the amounts of dry organic material in the soil. Access to heavier, mineral laden soil would have sped up fire line construction.
One Surry County firefighter, who wished to remain anonymous, said he could not express how frustrated he was that local firefighters who are trained in woodland fire suppression weren’t being used Friday. Elam said that the decision to not use local resources on Friday was purely budgetary.
“We are committed to use those we already have on the payroll now to fight the fire before we can spend out of budget for other personnel,” said Elam. He added that the Monday night meeting had been scheduled to answer questions about the incident. He said that officials knew residents had many questions and they want to get the answers out in full view of the public in an open venue.
“It was my call to not expend the volunteer fire department’s time and energies in light of their other additional responsibilities to their communities,” explained Elam. “They are very capable and we work with them every day to contain fires. I didn’t want to tie them up with what appeared to be a spot fire situation we could handle in house. It was a resource-centered decision at that time about how much to commit to in the dark.”
A total of 70 personnel, and equipment including three bulldozers, utility vehicles, a helicopter and a scout plane, have been used so far to fight the fire.
Early Saturday morning, Shelton reported the fire had burned nearly 700 acres of the state park. At 9:15 p.m. on Saturday, Shoals Volunteer Fire Department were dispatched 1183 Pinnacle Hotel Road where it was believed the fire had crossed onto private property. Upon arriving at the scene, officials reported the fire was approaching the fire lines but hand not left state park property.
Also that morning, the Pilot Knob Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to help protect the building that contains the restrooms located near the parking lot on top of Pilot Mountain. Peek said the structure was not harmed. Late Sunday, officials planned to monitor the area overnight after cutting a fire line that completely encircled the fire that was a quarter-mile inside the park’s boundary.
In addition to wildland-trained firefighters with the North Carolina Forest Service, North Carolina Bridge Crews and Americorps personnel, Pilot Knob Volunteer Fire Department and Shoals Volunteer Fire Department helped with the fire.
“It was an incredible sight,” said Pilot Mountain Town Manager Homer Dearmin. He said he was pleased with the efforts in place seeing crews working at the top of the mountain. “They did a great job and took care of things as best as they could. A lot of folks have asked me about the decision to have a controlled burn and I told them that hindsight is always 20-20. They did the best they could to manage it and that’s what’s important.”
Staff Reporter Mondee Tilley contributed to this article.
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1952.