Wildlife and nature have prospered at Pilot Mountain since the presence of fire

by | Dec 8, 2022

Prescribed fire is the planned use of fire under predetermined weather and fuel parameters to obtain specific management objectives. This is a critical management tool that benefits forests and wildlife, and helps reduce the impact of wildfire hazards in North Carolina.

Devastating. A word meaning highly destructive, damaging, causing severe shock, distress or grief. It’s also a word that has commonly been associated with the Grindstone Fire that ignited Nov. 27, 2021, at Pilot Mountain State Park. It’s not difficult to see where some might get that perception when viewing images and videos of the fire’s behavior during its early stages. The park rested under darkness of the night sky while the mountain, lit up with orange heat, appeared almost as a celestial body. Images such as these can paint a grim picture and leave many wondering about the long-term effects from the blaze. Would the forest recover? How many years would it take? What was the mortality rate among wildlife living in the park? For the animals that didn’t perish, what type of habitat would be left for them when they returned? What can be done to lower the risk of this happening again? These are just a few of the questions park visitors and local community members sought answers to following the wildfire. Prescribed fire and how it’s been previously applied to the landscape is likely a common thread in every answer.

The N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation has diligently conducted prescribed fire at Pilot Mountain State Park over the last decade. These efforts, along with the N.C. Forest Service’s ability to manage the Grindstone Fire in a manner similar to a prescribed burning operation, prevented the fire from becoming significantly worse while helping to establish the roots of a successful recovery. Sometimes, to fully understand the present you must revisit the past.

After formally being owned by private landowners, Pilot Mountain became a state park in 1968. But it wasn’t until 2003 that prescribed fire became a routine occurrence on the mountain to help with hazardous fuel reduction. Since then, officials at Pilot Mountain attempt to apply controlled burning operations to certain tracts of land on an annual basis to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

“For the most part, the Grindstone Fire was a very low intensity fire,” said Jason Anthony, superintendent of Pilot Mountain State Park. “Had it not been for the active prescribed fire management program over the past decade here at Pilot Mountain, last year’s Grindstone Fire could have very well been devastating.”

Anthony continued by saying everything that burned during the Grindstone Fire was scheduled to be burned under prescription within the next year or two. If anything, the wildfire jumpstarted those efforts. The frequency in which prescribed fire is conducted at Pilot Mountain varies depending on weather conditions and other important factors. Officials with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation are working on plans to expand the use of prescribed fire to all state parks. Pilot Mountain has been one of the leaders for burn frequency and active areas under prescription.

“Lightning strikes are going to happen; people are going to leave their campfires and they’re going to get out,” said Anthony. “When that happens, we want to make sure that the mountain is used to burning. We don’t want that lone lightning strike or that one camper that’s camping in an undesignated area to be the cause of a truly devastating wildfire that gets up into the crown of the trees and wipes out the forest.”

The Grindstone Fire was being fed by warmer air and uphill winds.

The unattended campfire located in an undesignated area that Anthony alluded to was the cause of the Grindstone Fire at Pilot Mountain State Park. Once the fire was reported by local community members, park officials began evacuating overnight campers and fielding phone calls from residents, vehicle onlookers and even employees who reside nearby. Personnel from the N.C. Forest Service were also called in as part of the initial response and would later assemble an incident management team to assume command of the fire. Janet Pearson, Surry County ranger with the N.C. Forest Service was one of the first to arrive on-scene when the fire was reported.

“When I first located the fire area, we were experiencing two-to-six-foot flame lengths, uphill winds and a thermal belt around the mountain that night which means we had warmer air that was feeding the fire,” said Pearson. “It was actively burning and the wind was pushing the fire up the mountain.”

Lack of daylight, steep terrain, rolling rock debris and cliff ledges presented significant obstacles and safety concerns for those first on the scene. In addition to firefighter safety, the primary objective was to utilize existing trail systems and previous firelines to keep the fire on the upper portions of the mountain and within the park footprint, preventing it from spilling onto private property. Resource requests were submitted almost immediately which included a bulldozer. Having a dozer line in place was pivotal in keeping the fire away from private property and potentially threatening homes and lives.

Before her tenure with the N.C. Forest Service, Pearson also worked for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation for 14 years, 10 of which she spent assigned to Pilot Mountain State Park. Pearson’s time with N.C. State Parks dates to 2012 when Pilot Mountain experienced its last wildfire. When comparing the 2012 wildfire with the Grindstone Fire in 2021, Pearson noted the vast differences in intensity. While the 2021 Grindstone Fire consumed more acreage, the 2012 wildfire burned with more potency.

“The fuel load was completely different in 2012 than it was in 2021,” Pearson said. “The wildfire in 2012 burned with more intensity because it had been over 75 years since fire had been applied to the mountain.”

With prescribed fire becoming a more regular occurrence at Pilot Mountain State Park, the buildup of hazardous fuel has been held in check. This played a crucial role with the management strategy of the Grindstone Fire.

Personnel with the N.C. Forest Service work to suppress the Grindstone Fire.

The N.C. Forest Service Red Incident Management Team (IMT) was assembled and arrived at Pilot Mountain the next day. With having adequate resources and personnel at the scene, the IMT could now draw up a plan on how to best implement objectives and manage the wildfire. By using previously established firelines that had been reopened utilizing a bulldozer, the IMT determined the best course of action would be to allow the fire to slowly back down the mountain to those lines, allowing crews to hold it on the mountain. Not only was this the right move for the future of the landscape, but the terrain was too rough, too difficult and too dangerous for the firefighters.

The N.C. Forest Service Red IMT arrived at Pilot Mountain State Park on Sunday, Nov. 28.

“The prescribed fire events that have taken place on the mountain going back to 2012 and the burning that took place then, allowed us to suppress the fire much better,” said Jimmy Holt, Guildford County ranger and public information officer first assigned to the Grindstone Fire. “Basically, our IMT sent in fire crews to help the fire along and bring it down the mountain to tie in with the dozer lines and essentially conduct a burnout operation at that point. It went very well,” he added.

Personnel were able to wrap up the 1,050-acre wildfire in just a matter of a few days. When asked how the IMT’s management of the wildfire would have been altered if prescribed fire had remained absent from the mountain, Holt believes that the response would have been an extended attack rather than just an incident lasting a few days like the Grindstone Fire was.

“I think we could’ve been out there for several weeks,” said Holt.

“There’s always going to be varied opinions on prescribed fire events. Some people take the natural approach that we just do nothing and let nature take care of things on its own,” Holt continued. “We would rather be proactive with fire and manage it properly by burning it under controlled circumstances. Eventually, during extended dry periods, we will have a wildfire burn out of control if we don’t use prescribed fire as a tool.”

Nature’s ability to recover from a wildfire largely depends on the intensity of the flames. A wildfire more than 1,000 acres in size is no small footprint, and one would think that mortality among the forest and wildlife may be extreme. Staff at Pilot Mountain State Park said that wasn’t the case at all.

Fresh pine growth since the Grindstone Fire.

“After an event like that, the following spring, everything greens up fast and a lot of the blueberries start to come back,” Superintendent Anthony said. “After the first leaf fall, most visitors are hard pressed to see where exactly the fire was.”

A new tract of pine trees having reproduced on the mountainside since the Grindstone Fire.

A variety of native species made a quick return and began to flourish during the spring and summer months like they would any other year. Signs of new, thriving pine trees, mountain laurel and dogfennel surround hikers along the trails. The recovery of the park’s natural features is overwhelmingly evident. Park officials also witnessed animal behavior and activity return to a normal state almost immediately.

“Wildlife activity was literally present as soon as the ground started cooling,” said Carla Williams, park ranger at Pilot Mountain State Park. “We had white tail deer patrolling the mountain and moving through the campground that we could clearly see.”

Relative to animal casualties, park officials had a pleasant report containing a feel-good tune.

“While surveying the aftermath, we didn’t find any remains of animals that would have gotten caught up in the fire,” Williams added.

Animals were able to easily get away during the fire. Even animals that have not been blessed with the gift of speed were able to seek shelter.

“Our box turtles are able to dig down underground before the fire came over and reached them,” said Williams. “Since it wasn’t an extremely intense fire on the ground, that really helped with the survival rate,” she explained.

Black vultures and turkey vultures roost atop the pinnacle at Pilot Mountain. Park officials said the birds returned as soon as the mountain cooled off and produced another successful migratory season.

The prominent knob that sits at the peak of Pilot Mountain is where a variety of bird species call home. The flames did reach that area during the Grindstone Fire, but Williams noted that since the fire took place during the fall, most of the birds had already hatched, started flying and were able to safely flee the area.

“We have black vultures and turkey vultures who love to roost on top of the knob,” Williams said. “We have some that temporarily migrate here but most of them call Pilot Mountain home. Once the summit cooled down, they started flying around it again.”

Park officials said they had a great migratory bird count this year which included vultures, hawks and various species of songbirds.

“We didn’t see any negative impacts to our bird count. If anything, we’ve seen good growth,” Williams added.

A patch of mountain laurel flourishing following the Grindstone Fire.

“We’ve seen them thrive here even after the fire.”

The beneficial use of prescribed fire continues to become more evident with instances of the Grindstone Fire. Where the consistent use of low intensity and intentional controlled burning previously conducted by N.C. State Parks, paired with the N.C. Forest Service’s ability to manage the incident like a prescribed fire, lead to a healthy recovery of the mountain. Efforts to increase good fire on the landscape go beyond Pilot Mountain State Park. Arrangements are in the works to implement burning plans for all state parks. Restoration of fire adapted species and ecosystems such as longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, pitch pine, oak-pine woodlands and upland oak, is a major reason prescribed burning is applied across North Carolina by many conservation partnerships. The N.C. Forest Service has a key role to play in promoting prescribed fire training; providing fuel condition and fire danger assessments; managing regulations related to prescribed fire; and, implementing prescribed fire on private and public lands. In the recently updated North Carolina Forest Action Plan, forestry stakeholders along with the N.C. Forest Service collaboratively established objectives to promote the greater acceptance and application of prescribed fire to benefit forest health, wildlife habitat, fuel reduction and fire adapted ecosystems.

Prescribed fire is an age-old practice that was part of everyday life for Native Americans and early settlers. Today, it remains one of the most effective tools, helping North Carolina forests remain healthy and thrive. Numerous collaborative efforts across multiple agencies will continue to use this tool while proactively educating the public of its value.

For a closer look at the Grindstone Fire and how the management of prescribed fire paved the way for a successful recovery, take a journey through a video package prepared by the N.C. Forest Service. To learn more about the benefits of good fire and how to get started implementing prescribed fire on your land, visit https://www.ncforestservice.gov/goodfire. For more information about the long term goals and plans for implementing prescribed fire for North Carolina, the 10-year outlook is available through the North Carolina Forest Action Plan.