North Carolina Parks and Recreation officials, responding to allegations that they didn’t care enough to attend Monday’s update on the Pilot Mountain State Park Fire, say they would love to address the Board of Commissioners regarding the blaze.
During Monday’s meeting North Carolina Forestry Service officials told the board that procedures were going to change after a review of the incident, but the board seemed irate that the park service, who set the blaze that burned more than 800 acres, had no one in attendance at the meeting.
Parks and Recreation Spokesman Charlie Peek said the department simply didn’t know an update was scheduled.
“We were not invited to this meeting, or told it would be on the agenda,” he said. “We certainly welcome the opportunity to speak with the board and address this issue.”
He said he isn’t quite sure why the board would have assumed the park service would attend.
“I can’t shed any more light on it than that,” Peek said. “We’d absolutely be there if invited. Any time we can explain this, or any other, issue with the state parks we’ll be glad to talk.”
Peek acknowledged that it was his department who determined that conditions were ripe for the blaze.
“It was our decision to hold the prescribed burn on that day,” he said. “But the North Carolina Forest Service approved that decision, as is standard practice.”
Addressing the post-incident review of the fire, Peek said his department is also conducting a review.
“The park system has put together a task force that is looking at all aspects of our prescribed burn program, and has even suspended prescribed burning throughout the state as a result,” he said. “We don’t have a deadline on the report, but hopefully we’ll be receiving feedback very soon.”
The review is “reexamining the prescribed burn program” to determine how it can be improved.
Peek said he can’t speak to whether the fire should have been started, but noted that conditions were acceptable according to protocol.
“There are people looking at that and it will be addressed as part of the entire look into the prescribed burn program,” he said. “We’re looking at whether the (conditions) met the requirements at that time or whether we need to look at the requirements in the future..”
Contrary to allegations that conditions were barely acceptable when the Nov. 8 fire was started, Peek said they were favorable.
“We do have prescribed burns all over the state, and some of those are on the bubble within the prescription limits regarding humidity and wind speed and what-have-you,” he said. “In this case, under the best information we had at that time, it was well within the conditions. At that time, on that mountain, it was well within parameters.”
And allegations that fire officials didn’t notify residents are inaccurate as well, Peek said.
“We sent out media releases ahead of time that there was going to be a burn,” he said. “One the day of the fire, we notified all volunteer fire departments and media outlets as is standard protocol.”
But Peek acknowledged that “things could have been done better.
“And in the future they will be done better,” he said.
County residents who attended the subsequent community meeting about the blaze made some good points, Peek said.
He noted that his department is “looking at” putting together a notification system.
“(County residents) had some good ideas,” he said. “We took them to heart and there should be improvements in our public notification systems when incidents are in progress.”
But Peek said allegations that they didn’t attend Monday’s meeting to avoid the commissioners is wrong.
“We weren’t staying away on purpose,” he said. “We want to take responsibility for whatever happens at Pilot Mountain State Park and explain it to the community. We’re partners in this. We can’t have a successful state park without the community behind us.”
Board Chairman Eddie Harris said county officials just want to get to the bottom of the matter.
“Certainly the state park system is welcomed at the Board of Commissioners meetings,” he said. “I don’t know where the miscommunication was. I was under the understanding that this had been an open invitation for some time and all the proper officials had been notified.
“I’m not looking to cast a lot of blame. My only hope is that we can all learn from this and more forward together.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.