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Investigators: Campfire in unauthorized area caused Pilot Mountain blaze
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Investigators: Campfire in unauthorized area caused Pilot Mountain blaze

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PILOT MOUNTAIN — 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 has consumed over 1,000 acres is 50% contained.

State investigators also determined the fire was started by a campfire in an unauthorized area.

Future droughts, intensified by rising temperatures caused by climate change, will fuel an increase in wildfires and expand the footprint of 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.

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 as well as a 40-acre blaze at Sauratown Mountain in Stokes County.

The low humidity and high winds that fanned the Pilot Mountain fire likely were a factor in a flare-up at Sauratown this week, according to the N.C. Forest Service.

On Pilot Mountain, just 1.9 inches of precipitation has fallen since late September.

“These two fires are symptomatic of a recent lack of rainfall and expanding drought, which currently covers almost half of North Carolina,” said Corey Davis, an assistant state climatologist at the N.C. State Climate Office. He added that vegetation turned dormant by the mountain’s first frost on Nov. 4 provided added fuel.

Jimmy Holt, an N.C. Forest Service ranger for Guilford County, 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 terrain 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, continuing dry conditions will pose a challenge for firefighters, but the forest service is confident that the blaze will stay under control.

Holt said that forest service firefighters on Pilot Mountain are “fatigued.” He added that if the forest service is tasked with fighting any more large fires, outside reinforcements may be needed.

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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