In November, hundreds of acres burned on Pilot Mountain after a prescribed burn started by the North Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation went out of control.
While that blaze was eventually extinguished, anger over the incident was still smoldering during Monday night’s Surry County Board of Commissioners meeting.
Board members roundly criticized the department and its officials on all fronts — for its lack of public alert that a controlled burn would be undertaken, for the decision to start the burn on a relatively windy and dry day, and for not acting more quickly to call in firefighters once it appeared the blaze might be getting out of control.
During the meeting, officials with the North Carolina Forestry Service were on hand to explain their role in fighting the fire, the decision not to include local firefighters despite their willingness to join the efforts, and to heap their own criticism onto the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Some of the frustration expressed during the meeting revolved around the fact that no one from the department bothered to show up for Monday’s meeting.
Turns out there was an understandable reason for that — no one from the county informed them there would be a meeting, nor did they let department officials know the November fire would be a topic of discussion.
The next day, department spokesman Charlie Peek confirmed that no one from Surry County gave his department any clue the fire would be on the board’s agenda.
“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 … 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.”
He also said that while his department made the much-criticized decision to hold the burn that day, it did so with the full knowledge and blessing of the forestry service, and strongly implied the burn most likely would never have taken place without such approval.
So here we are, two months after the fact, with everyone still pointing fingers at everyone else.
What happened was terrible, and we hope an ongoing investigation by the forestry service does, finally, come to some conclusion as to how this happened while outlining concrete steps both agencies can take to ensure this sort of thing does not happen again.
In the meantime, we express the hope that bickering and finger-pointing would stop and all parties would look forward as to how to make the best of a bad situation.
Specifically, we would hope any action taken would hold these steps as top priorities:
* Efforts to rehabilitate the public lands and park facilities that were damaged continue, in full force;
* Any damage to private property which may have occurred be restored fully and quickly, if this hasn’t already taken place;
* Work a little smarter to inform the public prior to the burn. In addition to utilizing media, work with local governments. Many have autodial programs in which they can call local residents with automated emergency messages — perhaps the department could ask localities to use this service.
* And get everyone on the same page. If the board wants to have a productive, informative discussion on the fire, ensure all the principles are informed of the meeting. Maybe let local fire departments know of a prescribed burn and have some units on standby to quickly respond if the fire appears to be getting out of control.