PILOT MOUNTAIN — Residents living at the base of Pilot Mountain and area firefighters expressed their shock, awe and frustration that more is not being done to control the wildfire that continues to burn on Pilot Mountain.
The fire started on Thursday with a prescribed burn that is done on an almost yearly basis to prevent forest fires by burning off leaves and undergrowth.
The fire originally got out of control after embers jumped fire lines, according to John Shelton, Surry County Emergency Services director. Eight local volunteer fire departments were called out to help Thursday afternoon, but after 30 minutes, when officials thought the fire was contained to a three-acre area, only three departments remained to help park officials extinguish the blaze that could be seen for miles around.
Shelton said Thursday just before 8 p.m. that the fire was contained, but it would be monitored overnight.
However, on Friday, Charlie Peek, the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation’s public information officer, said that about 130 acres had burned. Local residents, however, had issues with that estimate claiming that much more than that had burned.
On roads surrounding the mountain, especially in the Shoals community on the southside of the mountain where the fire was prominent, people were pulling off the road to stop and take pictures of the glowing embers and smoke of the fire.
Betty Ann McKinney, who is 64-years-old, has lived near McKinney cut on Shoals Road her whole life. She said that she had never seen anything like the fire that was raging on the mountain Thursday and Friday.
“It breaks my heart that my mountain is burning,” said McKinney as she stood in the parking lot of Pinnacle View Baptist Church watching the smoke rise off the mountain. She said park officials were “stupid” for starting a prescribed burn on a windy day.
She said as a child some of her best memories stem from going to the Hitchin’ Grounds, then climbing the mountain. She said they would climb the “rickety” steps up to the top of the knob where they could see all around the mountain.
“Those are some of the best memories of my life,” McKinney said.
David Winstead, who has lived near the bottom of the mountain in the Shoals community for the last 40 years, said he was worried about people who have land and homes at the base of the mountain. He said he thought the whole mountain would burn before all is said and done.
“Before this gets on other people’s property, they need to call in more than that tiny helicopter,” said Winstead.
A helicopter was being used on Friday to drop water it picked up from a local pond. A bulldozer also was being used to cut fire breaks.
In addition to wildland trained firefighters with the North Carolina Forest Service, North Carolina Bridge Crews and Americorps were on hand to fight the fire on Friday. According to Peek, about 40 personnel were working on extinguishing the fire on the mountain Friday.
No Surry County volunteer firefighters were allowed on the mountain to fight the fire Friday afternoon, according to Peek. He said because of the steep terrain and dangerous conditions, officials only wanted to use professionals to fight the fire.
Brian Elam, Surry’s county ranger for the N.C. Forest Service, said that crews would be working on the mountain at least until Monday.
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. He watched as flames burned in the formation of a cross on the Shoals side of the mountain. He also pointed out a glowing red patch of fire that was only 100 yards from his home.
Peek echoed that statement by saying that prescribed burns add nutrients to the soil.
“It opens up the light so that a variety of plants have a chance to grow,” Peek said.
Pilot Mountain Town Manager Homer Dearmin said he was pleased with the efforts in place after seeing crews working at the top of the mountain.
“It was an incredible sight. People have been talking about it all over town. There’s been a lot of buzz around town and we got a lot of phone calls about it yesterday. We let folks know it was a controlled burn,” said Dearmin. “They are doing a great job and are taking care of things the best they can. A lot of folks have asked me about the decision to have a controlled burn yesterday and I told them that hindsight is always 20-20. They are doing the best they can to manage it and that’s what’s important.”
Reach Mondee Tilley at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1930.