PINNACLE — Following an update on the fire at Pilot Mountain State Park by both park and state forestry officials, county residents had a message for officials handling the fire — let us know when you’re planning a burn and use available resources should that burn get out of control.
The message was delivered during a Pilot Mountain Fire Community Meeting held in the fellowship hall at Pinnacle View Baptist Church.
About 150 county residents turned out for the meeting, which began with an update on the fire.
During the update, fire officials told the group that the reason more local volunteer fire departments weren’t used was safety.
“On Thursday evening, the fire line was being cleared and where it was burning there was very little soil so if we didn’t do something safety could have been an issue,” said Brian Elam, Surry County ranger with the North Carolina Forest Service. “We had personnel on the scene and didn’t want to endanger more firefighters because they have responsibilities of their own and I sure wasn’t going to tie them up on what was then a one-acre fire.”
After working through the night, Elam said the fire had spread more than officials had suspected and “it wasn’t as contained as we thought.”
Elam was joined by other fire officials in noting that some local fire departments were used in backup roles, but the primary responsibility for the blaze rested with the state forestry service.
“I hope people don’t think we turned people away,” added Pilot Mountain State Park Superintendent Matt Windsor. “We called the communications office and asked for two crews.”
But several people in the crowd commented that during the blaze equipment from nearby Shoals Volunteer Fire Department was sitting at the department.
Officials at the meeting said a post-incident review will take place to address what could be done better.
“We’re going to be conducting a very serious review of this incident,” said Don Reuter, assistant director for North Carolina Parks and Recreation. “Now is not the time for it because we’re still working to get the fire out. But there will be a time for it.”
Other residents told officials they wish more had been done to alert the citizens living nearby of the danger.
Told that information about the planned burn was on a website, Dale Chilton said the citizens should have been told about the fire, especially when it got out of control.
“This isn’t a situation where I want to have to go look for information,” he said. “I want you people to contact me. We need you to let us know on the front end, not have us track information down. This is the electronic age. You have the capability to communicate.”
Incident Commander Kevin Harvell agreed, noting that more could have been done.
“We’re going to be looking hard at our communications with the public,” he said. “There are systems out there that will address this issue, and we’re going to sit down and see how we can best serve you.”
But many in the crowd wanted to simply know why the planned burn was started in the first place.
“Common sense would seem to dictate that you don’t start a fire with the wind we were having Thursday and the lack of rain we’ve had,” said Westfield resident Katheryn Myers.
Dave Cook of the state Department of Parks and Recreation said all in-place guidelines indicated the fire could safely be started.
“No one ever said not to burn,” he said. “And there are a whole lot of parameters we have to meet.”
But for Pilot Mountain resident Stan King, it should have been a matter of common sense.
“I don’t know which agency determines when (controlled burn) permits are issued, but I think all of us have always gone on the rule that you do it when it’s as damp and calm as possible. I question whether common sense was used,” he said.
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.