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A campfire sparked the 1,000 acre Pilot Mountain blaze. Climate change will fuel more wildfires, experts say.
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A campfire sparked the 1,000 acre Pilot Mountain blaze. Climate change will fuel more wildfires, experts say.

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An unusually dry fall has put many North Carolina forests at risk for wildfires, including at Pilot Mountain State Park, where firefighters said Wednesday evening that a blaze that began Saturday and grew to about 1,050 acres was 50% contained, up from 20% Tuesday.

State investigators also determined the fire was started by a campfire in an unauthorized area, said Jimmy Holt, N.C. Forest Service ranger for Guilford County.

Future droughts, intensified by rising temperatures caused by climate change, will fuel an increase in wildfires and expand areas most susceptible to burning, experts caution.

“We’ve created the perfect conditions for wildfires, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” said Robert Scheller, a professor in N.C. State University’s  Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources who is studying the potential impacts of climate change on forests in North Carolina.

Pilot Mountain Fire from Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.

Warmer temperatures have and will continue to cause deeper droughts and drier fuel, like the fallen leaves and dormant vegetation that burned in the Pilot Mountain Fire in Surry County and a 40-acre blaze at Sauratown Mountain in Stokes County on Nov. 9-14, Scheller added.

The low humidity and high winds that fanned the Pilot Mountain fire likely were a factor in a flare-up at Sauratown this week, Holt said Wednesday.  A small crew of forest service firefighters was monitoring the Sauratown blaze, which was declared fully contained after spreading to 40 acres on Tuesday, he reported.

On Pilot Mountain, just 1.9 inches of precipitation has fallen since the forest service’s automated weather station recorded 4.13 inches of rain Sept. 22 and 23, Corey Davis, assistant state climatologist at the N.C. State Climate Office, reported in an assessment of pre-fire conditions at the park.

“These two fires are symptomatic of a recent lack of rainfall and expanding drought, which currently covers almost half of North Carolina,” said Davis, who added that vegetation turned dormant by the mountain’s first frost Nov. 4 provided added fuel.

Containment continues

Holt said Wednesday that about 60 forest service firefighters remained on Pilot Mountain, and that “all the progression of the fire has been stopped.”

Firefighters were spraying water and digging out hotspots in a containment area up to 100 feet inside a perimeter established to stop the fire from spreading. Holt said he was unsure of the size of the area inside the perimeter, which essentially circles the foot of the 2,421-foot mountain, but that the area burned covers about half the park.

Firefighters also are removing dead and burning trees, he added.

“That’s the biggest potential to (fire) escaping  — those dead, burning trees that are 50, 60, 70 feet up and have the potential to cast those embers across the line,” Holt said. “It’s a slow, tedious process because it’s dangerous work.”

State planes also have begun using infrared technology to detect hotspots and direct fire personnel to them.

Those areas are “kind of those sleeping giants that could rear their head later on, “ Holt noted.

With no rain in the forecast until next week, dry conditions continue to be a challenge for firefighters, but the forest service is confident the blaze will stay under control.

“We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel as long as everyone obeys the burn ban.”

The forest service issued the statewide ban on outdoor burning Tuesday.

No one has been injured in the Pilot Mountain fire and no buildings have been  damaged, Holt said.

McDowell County fire

A large wildfire also ignited Tuesday on Pogue Mountain in McDowell County near Marion.

More than 30 firefighters were on the scene constructing containment lines Wednesday. Terrain on the mountain is rugged, with many areas only accessible on foot.

No one was injured in the fire, and no information was available early Wednesday about how it started, officials said in a statement.

Holt said Wednesday that forest service firefighters working on Pilot Mountain are “stretched out, fatigued.” He added that if the forest service is called in to work on other large fires, outside reinforcements may be needed.

“It’s not my call, but they would probably start calling for out-of-state resources at that point," said Holt, adding that he traveled to northern California and Montana this year to assist in firefighting efforts.

John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

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