Sauratown Mountain: The aftermath of a recent wildfire and preparing for the next

by | May 30, 2024

Sauratown Mountain Fire as viewed from nearby Pilot Mountain.

North Carolina traditionally experiences two seasons annually in which wildfire risk is heightened and activity increases. The year’s first wildfire season occurs March through early May when humidity levels tend to be lower and trees, shrubs and other natural vegetation begin pulling necessary moisture and nutrients from the ground to green-up, blossom and bloom. This causes ground conditions to dry out quicker. As summer heat and humidity levels taper off and autumn’s foliage begins to stack up leaf litter on the forest floor, wildfires once again become more frequent from October through early December. To most, these two seasons are known simply as spring and fall wildfire seasons.

However, in 2023, it seemed as though North Carolina was never able to “take five” and catch its breath from wildfires. The N.C. Forest Service responded to more than 5,300 wildfires across the state in 2023, which burned approximately 76,200 acres. Most fires were held to five acres or less, but North Carolinians saw their fair share of large incidents as well. Off to an early start with March’s Last Resort Fire in Tyrell County, wildfire season appeared to roll on through the summer months and into the fall before its grand finale, when North Carolinians endured more than a thousand wildfires in November alone.

The Sauratown Mountain Fire in Stokes County in 2023, which required many personnel with the N.C. Forest Service to forgo their Thanksgiving feast to stand post, was first reported Saturday, Nov. 18, before being declared fully contained Friday, Dec. 8. Determined to be the result of an escaped campfire, the 809-acre blaze was the second to occur on the mountain in the last three years.

Rehabilitating containment lines installed during suppression is crucial for controlling erosion. Photo by N.C. Forest Service.

To suppress wildfires as safely and efficiently as possible, the N.C. Forest Service utilizes a variety of heavy equipment including Type 4 and Type 6 engines, bulldozers and aircraft. A bulldozer pulling a plow removes burnable fuel around a wildfire, exposing mineral soil –which doesn’t burn—and pushes burnable debris aside. This process is known as establishing a containment line. Since they provide natural fuel breaks, water features such as streams can be a good starting or ending point for a containment line.

Rehabilitating containment lines is also critical to the protection of water features that may have intersected with containment lines as seen here. Rehab plans implemented here are working properly as grass seed has sprouted and stabilized. Photo by the N.C. Forest Service.

The N.C. Forest Service works to contain wildfires while minimizing damage to a landowner’s woodlands. Rehabilitating containment lines installed during suppression is crucial for controlling erosion and protecting water features that may have intersected with containment lines. Bulldozed containment lines lacking rehabilitation efforts can be a chronic source of sediment that causes damage to site productivity. The resulting stream sedimentation can be problematic for aquatic wildlife and water quality. The recently burned landscape may also be vulnerable to further site damage by weather events, which can prolong the reestablishment of vegetation and accelerate soil erosion, impacting water quality and wildlife habitat, making suppression repair just as important as suppressing wildfires, safeguarding homes and protecting natural resources.

“Typically, once we know the wildfire is contained, meaning no chance of escaping, we start the rehab process before all resources are released,” said Jonathan Young, N.C. Forest Service Stokes County ranger. “The rehab plans that were implemented on Sauratown Mountain are working properly and it looks amazing. Water bars are holding, grass seed has sprouted and stabilized in the areas where it was applied and the impacted stream crossings are well stabilized.”

The area where the fire burned will recover naturally through successional forest processes but active management can help accelerate the recovery process, implemented at the discretion of the landowner.

Jonathan Young, Stokes County ranger for the N.C. Forest Service, discusses the history of fire on Sauratown Mountain with residents.

With Sauratown Mountain having recently caught fire twice in the last three years, mitigation is a word that has been brought up by many as a means of being proactive to protect life and property during the next one. Mitigation activities focus on the likelihood that wildfires will continue to occur and folks can identify solutions that work for themselves and their community to start building a more defensible living space.

“Embers are like the tumble weeds you see in western movies, they just keep blowing in the wind until they get lodged against something,” explained Wes Sketo, wildfire mitigation forester for the N.C. Forest Service. “What you don’t want that something to be is your gutters full of leaves, your foundation shrubbery or under your deck where you keep your dry firewood. N.C. Forest Service personnel are happy to come out and do an assessment of individual homes or communities to make recommendations on how you can become a fire-adapted community.”

Sketo further explained that wildfire risk and suppression challenges increase in areas where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland, forest or vegetative fuels. These areas are known as the wildland urban interface (WUI), and North Carolina has more WUI acres than any other state in the country and the state’s population growth increases this acreage each year. The interface creates great challenges for fire managers as nearly every fire or its associated smoke may impact homes, roads, farms or other development.

Wes Sketo, wildfire mitigation forester for the N.C. Forest Service, talks with the Sauratown Mountain community about ways they can develop home-hardening techniques and landscaping choices to help negate losses to life and property during the next wildfire. Photo by Lillian Knepp, N.C. Forest Service.

“We want folks to focus on how they can develop home-hardening techniques and the manipulation of natural vegetation and landscaping choices to negate losses to life and property as that fire passes,” added Sketo. “As North Carolina’s population continues to increase, and as we have more people residing in the wildland urban interface, we’ll continue to see an increase in wildfires.”

Sketo talked about the importance of communities working together to identify solutions in preparation for the next one. Following the wildfire on Sauratown Mountain, and the implementation of suppression repair, many private landowners who reside on the mountain gathered at the Sauratown Fire Department in January 2024 for an informational meeting with the N.C. Forest Service and other local fire officials to recap the incident and look ahead. While the incident had concluded more than a month prior, N.C. Forest Service personnel who live and work in the communities in which they serve, continue to stand by long after the emergency has passed.

“A wildfire galvanizes a community and brings us closer to how American society has typically functioned in the past,” added Sketo. “Neighbors working together on projects where their home ignition zones overlap, or donations to the local fire department to increase their readiness for the next call out, follow-up presentations and wildfire risk assessments. I’ve seen all of these in the weeks since our presentation at Sauratown Fire Department. Many more partners are joining the effort to accomplish these projects.”

Having responded to multiple wildfires on the mountain, Young has observed how partnerships between agencies and communities continue to strengthen.

“The community partnerships and agency relationships are even stronger since the wildfire on Sauratown Mountain,” described Young. “All agencies involved work very closely together in Stokes County and get along exceptionally well. Numerous community members have expressed their praise and appreciation to all those involved and how well things were handled.”

To learn more about fire safety and preventing wildfires and loss of property, refer to Fire Safety Outdoors. For information about creating defensible space and a fire-resistant landscape around your home and property, visit www.resistwildfirenc.org. Contact information for county rangers with the N.C. Forest Service is available online at www.ncforestservice.gov/contacts.