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Did climate change affect Pilot Mountain fire?
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Did climate change affect Pilot Mountain fire?

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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.”

Before I left for Thanksgiving, I had a pair of sneakers in my bag. This was in case my father wanted to go on a hike while I was away. The weekend turned out to be different. On Saturday, a fire started just off the Grindstone Trail. As I drove down U.S. 52 Sunday afternoon, my metaphorical door was covered with smoke.

As of Wednesday eveningIt had destroyed more than 1,050 acres in the state park, and was now only 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 recordAccording to data from the North Carolina State Climate Office, it is. The closest comparable dry season was in 1931 (the same year as the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains).

Monday saw the state issue a ban on burning, prohibiting people from using outdoor firepits or burning trash as the state tries to recover from this dry spell. Pogue Mountain in McDowell county erupted Tuesday in a 50-acre fire. A fire broke out on Sauratown Mountain, Stokes County, in early November.

Kathie DelloThe office’s director, however, insists that rain is the only solution. Dry spells are an indication of the 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.”

Although the fire history of Pilot Mountain is not well documented, a study of tree rings can provide some insight. Salem CollegeDane Kuppinger, a biology professor found that wildfires usually occur every 7-14 year. This is consistent in comparison to other mountains in the region.

The fires seem to be linked to human activity, as the mountain has been used for private preserves, farmland, then a state park.

“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 WFDD2015

Fire is good for Pilot Mountain, as Dello stated. Table Mountain pine cones are only open when exposed for fire. The 20th century’s fire suppression policies resulted in dramatic landscape changes on Pilot Mountain, as well as other natural areas in the country. Pilot Mountain has even established prescribed burns to protect its forest.

Fire is destructive. It causes property damage and can pose problems for those with asthma or other respiratory problems. These fires often coincide with other extreme weather events like the frequent hurricanes in 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.

This story was originally published in December 3, 2021 at 4:30 AM

Sara Pequeño is a Raleigh-based opinion writer for McClatchy’s North Carolina Opinion Team and member of the Editorial Board. She graduated from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019 and has been writing in North Carolina for the past ten years.


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