Other voices: Observations from the Pilot Mountain fire

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, December 7, 2021

It’s the kind of spectacle that people will talk about for decades: They saw the mountain on fire.

Firefighters from the N.C. Forest Service and the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation worked to put out the wildfire at Pilot Mountain State Park. They fought a blaze that burned more than 1,000 acres — fortunately, confined to state-owned property. All areas of the park were closed, including sections by the Yadkin River and parts of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and firefighters   built containment lines and took steps to prevent damage to the park’s visitors center, which opened in 2020, as well as other structures in the park.

The fire’s power was exacerbated by dry and windy conditions.

Fortunately, no nearby residents had to be evacuated.

“We plan on holding the fire to the mountain,” Jimmy Holt, the Guilford County ranger for the N.C. Forest Service, told the Journal as the blaze continued. Firefighters knew what they were doing.

“Right now there’s pretty much fire all around the top of the mountain basically,” Holt said.

Many observed from a safe distance as the fire spread, leaping from tree to tree and across hiking trails and roads. Fire, such a destructive force, can be beautifully mesmerizing.

But aside from the spectacle, there’s a serious and even melancholy aspect to the burn.

Pilot Mountain is a popular park; in 2020, it received just over 1 million  visitors. The number increased from the previous year’s 844,858, to some degree, as a reaction to COVID sequestration.

But that just shows how much we appreciate our parks as places of respite and refreshment.

Many residents have a deep attachment to this natural treasure. Many who live nearby have expressed a sense of sadness, seeing the forest consumed by fire. There’s also been a loss of wildlife as well as wildlife habitat.

So word to the wise: The fire doubtlessly led to a panicked migration. Deer, foxes and other animals will be fleeing for days yet. Drivers on local roads and U.S. 52, which passes by the park, should exert all proper caution to avoid deadly and costly collisions with fleeing animals.

Wildfire is always a danger to forests; over the years, firefighters have conducted prescribed, limited burns and established fire lines in our state parks to reduce the threat of raging, out-of-control conflagrations. One was established at Pilot Mountain following a wildfire that burned nearly 800 acres in 2012.

But nature is resilient and will spring again from the ashes.

“Fire can rejuvenate a natural landscape and improve native habitat,” the state forest service says in educational material. “Many species in the Southeast depend on fire for survival, such as the chestnut oak, red-cockaded woodpecker and pine snakes, to name a few.

“Fires break down organic material much faster than decomposition, thus renewing soil nutrients more quickly. This triggers a rebirth of forest, helping to maintain native plant species. It provides more fertile soil and opens up the forest canopy, promoting vitality and the luscious growth of grasses and forbs.”

When it’s safe to open the gates again, we’re sure that visitors will flock to Pilot Mountain to assess the damage and recovery for themselves.

In the meantime, monetary donations can be made in person at Town Hall in Pilot Mountain, over the phone at 336-368-2247, Ext. 0, or at pilotmountainnc.org.

— Winston-Salem Journal