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Pilot Mountain fire brings home the danger of climate change

·3 min read

Pilot Mountain is the first thing I see when I’ve made it home. It’s about 20 minutes from my parents’ house, but seeing it while driving down U.S. 52 feels like turning the doorknob to Surry County and having it welcome you home with colorful trees and a rocky top known as “the Big Pinnacle” or “the knob.”

I threw a pair of sneakers in my bag before leaving for Thanksgiving, just in case my dad wanted to go for a hike while I was home. The weekend ended up looking different: on Saturday, a fire began just off the Grindstone Trail. My metaphorical door was covered in a haze of smoke as I drove down U.S. 52 Sunday afternoon.

As of Wednesday evening, it had burned through more than 1,050 acres of the state park and was half-contained.

“We have a good handle on this,” Jimmy Holt, the Guilford County ranger with the N.C. Forest Service, told The Winston-Salem Journal. “Of course, with the conditions we’re facing right now, it’s far from over. There’s a lot of work that’s left to be done.”

The burn began with an out-of-control campfire, but the weather conditions haven’t helped. This fall has been the third-driest one on record, according to data collected by the North Carolina State Climate Office. The closest comparable dry season was in 1931, the same year as the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains.

The state put out a burn ban Monday, prohibiting folks from using outdoor fire pits or burning trash while the state rides out this dry spell. On Tuesday, Pogue Mountain in McDowell County erupted in a 50-acre fire on Tuesday. In early November, a fire began on Sauratown Mountain in Stokes County.

Kathie Dello, the director of the office, says rain is the only solution. The dry spells, however, are indicative of the ongoing climate crisis.

“Fire is good for our natural landscape,” Dello says. “It’s been around since the dawn of time. But when we think about climate change, we’re turning up the dial on all the things that make for a fire. We’re getting warmer. We’re seeing our precipitation come in these fits and starts.”

The fire history of Pilot Mountain has been poorly documented, but a study of tree rings by Salem College biology professor Dane Kuppinger found that wildfires generally happen every 7-14 years, which is consistent with other mountains in the area.

Since the mountain has been used as a private preserve, farmland, and now a state park, the fires seem to correlate with human activity.

“Our sense is that these were in spots where people like to start fires; either because it’s where you’re having your campfires, or burning your brush,” Kuppinger told WFDD in 2015.

As Dello said, fire is good for Pilot Mountain. Table Mountain pine cones only open when exposed to fire; fire suppression policies from the 20th century resulted in huge landscape changes on Pilot Mountain and in other natural areas across the country. Pilot Mountain even has prescribed burns to keep its forest healthy.

But fire is destructive; it leads to property damage and creates problems for locals with asthma or other respiratory issues. And these fires are coinciding with other extreme weather events, like the frequent hurricanes that batter eastern North Carolina.

Pilot Mountain’s symbolism as “home” means so much to me that it was my first tattoo. I gave it a place on the landscape of my skin so I could take home with me, and right now it’s hard to see “home” engulfed in flames. And even though I know it can be good, and I can’t stop it, it just adds to my ever-mounting climate anxiety.

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