A fire on Pilot Mountain that began as a prescribed burn had consumed about 675 acres and was 98 percent contained as of Tuesday, according to park officials.
Monday night’s rain caused North Carolina Forest Service and Division of Parks and Recreation officials to re-evaluate plans for using volunteer fire department tankers on a large scale to help mop up forest fire hot spots at Pilot Mountain.
According to Forest Service Public Information Officer David Brown, the fire was 98 percent contained as of Tuesday. Officials used GPS data to more accurately map the containment lines around the fire and have set the amount of acreage affected at 675 acres.
Brown’s press release Tuesday indicated firefighters spent Tuesday patrolling fire breaks and extinguishing any smoldering debris near the fire breaks. A small group of firefighters was expected to remain on patrol at fire lines Tuesday night.
With up to .6 inches of rain falling on the burned area Monday night, Brown said many of the hot spots that firefighters were unable to reach had been extinguished.
Only one hot spot remained Tuesday night that was a concern, and that was on the northwest side of the fire.
“Before the rain, there was some consideration of using volunteer fire department units to fill drop tanks with water at various areas which we would use on hot spots,” explained Brown. “With the rain we are not sure if the water need we had planned on is as great now.”
Brown said two volunteer fire departments were involved with setting up and filling drop tanks Tuesday. He said he also anticipated some other volunteer department trucks would be used to pump water for use on smoldering spots. Brown said Pilot Knob Volunteer Fire Department had been using its water tender truck and Ararat Volunteer Fire Department also had a vehicle used as a water tender.
He said when the fire was more active earlier local volunteer fire department units had been used at the ready around trigger point areas. Typically, the service uses trigger points to determine if additional help gets called in to protect private property.
“We will often have volunteer fire departments come in and stand by a trigger point,” said Brown. “We called in a volunteer fire department Sunday when this was the case and have used them throughout the fire to some degree.”
He said a helicopter was on stand by throughout the day Tuesday, but was not needed to drop water, and a scout plane had been used to help spot smoldering areas. Brown explained traditionally in rocky terrain like Pilot Mountain emphasis is put on keeping the containment lines wet and letting the fire burn back in on itself.
“The rain we had helped put the fire down but it won’t put it out,” said Brown. He indicated that Pilot Mountain State Park will remain closed until park personnel have assessed all roads and trails for safety hazards such as fallen or overhanging dead trees.
While the mountain portion of the park is closed, the Yadkin River and Corridor sections of the park are open to visitors. Brown said the mountain section may reopen in stages as the areas affected by the fire are determined to be safe.
Officials said earlier the low intensity of the fire damaged very little standing timber. Damage to park facilities was confined to burned fence rails and posts at viewing areas. In addition to utility vehicles, three bulldozers and 83 personnel, including seven hand crews, were used to fight the blaze.
Brown reported that an assessment of the park’s roads, trails and bulldozer constructed fire breaks had begun to determine rehabilitation needs, and crews were expected to begin rehab work Wednesday.
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.
Peek confirmed Monday 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.
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 timeline 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.
According to Surry County Emergency Service Director John Shelton, the fire started on Thursday as a yearly prescribed burn intended to prevent forest fires got 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.”
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.”
Reporter Mondee Tilley contributed to this article.