SURRY COUNTY, N.C. — North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper visited Pilot Mountain Thursday to view the wildfire damage as crews continue to monitor it.
Gov. Cooper thanked the North Carolina Forest Service and local firefighters in the area. He also thanked the community for their outpouring of support.
“I want to thank the people of this area of the state. All of them stepped up. Started donating food and water and helping the local fire departments. I will tell you that you’ve done a great job that got enough. They are always needing your help and your financial contributions,” Cooper said.
Cooper also spoke about what he saw while visiting damaged areas.
“This park is one of the great state parks of North Carolina. It hurts to see it consumed by fire but what struck me was looking at the trees still standing,” Cooper said.
He said he believes the forest and park will recover as it has before.
"We know this one will bounce back. Nature is resilient," Cooper said.
He also said he's concerned about the work firefighters are doing and fatigue with multiple fires in the state be he said he knows "they can handle it."
The North Carolina Forest Service said a campfire started the wildfire.
It was started in a non-designated/unauthorized area. They said there's no word on who's responsible for the fire. The law enforcement division within the NC Forest Service is handling the investigation.
Thursday makes day six of the firefight. Firefighters have the blaze 80% contained, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said during a media briefing at the command center.
"These fires are not only expensive to fight they are also very dangerous to the personnel that are fighting them. So, I ask everyone in North Carolina not to burn and to adhere to the fire ban,” Troxler said.
He said crews are hopeful for the weekend in containing the fire.
"We’re very hopeful by the weekend everything will be 100% contained That does not mean the fires will be absolutely out. It will take continued surveillance to make sure they're out soaking rain is the best solution to a wildfire," Troxler said.
The blaze torched 1,100 acres and had been doubling in size every day. Firefighters remain on high alert, however, because the elements still aren't in their favor. Dry conditions and no rain in sight aren't a good mix for wildfires.
A burn ban has been issued for all counties in the state and it will stay in effect until further notice.
How large is the fire?
As of Thursday afternoon, the wildfire had burned 1,100 acres.
Dozens of fire-fighting officials have been called in to help, including North Carolina Forest Service personnel and North Carolina Parks crews. Planes are also being used to dump water onto the fire.
When did it start?
Chris Wall, a firefighter with the Pilot Knob Volunteer Fire Department, said the department got a call about the fire around 5:15 p.m. Saturday. He said two departments were sent out to the area of Three Bear Gully, where they made access to the fire on foot. The fire grew to about 60 acres that evening. In a matter of three days, the fire has grown four times that size.
What's the name of the fire?
The fire has been named the Grindstone Fire because it started along the Grindstone Trail on Pilot Mountain.
What caused the fire?
North Carolina Forest Service Ranger Jimmy Holt said Monday, "we can say with confidence that [the fire] was human-caused in some form." He said they know the fire wasn't started by a lightning strike, leading them to believe it was man-made. They have since said it started as a campfire.
He said the fire was first discovered on Grindstone Trail.
Officials said many of the fires we're seeing this time of year are being caused by drought and the leaves being on the ground, according to NC Forestry Service. Officials said the Sauratown Mountain fire was also caused by a campfire.
"Debris burning is the number one cause of escaped wildfires throughout North Carolina and the eastern part of the country," Holt said.
State Forest Service Investigators haven't said who started the fire and whether they face penalties depends on intent.
"If it's a non-malicious act, then sometimes that can result in a warning ticket for instance. It just depends on what our law enforcement officers view the intent as," Holt said.
When could the fire be out?
Holt said the firefight could last until the end of the week.
The dry and windy weather conditions aren’t helping firefighters either, and there's virtually no chance for rain in our area until Sunday.
North Carolina officials said they will continue to make this fire a priority until it rains, even once the fire is under control.
Is there a threat to homes?
Fire officials said no one has been hurt and no buildings have been damaged. No homes have had to be evacuated either. The fire is happening in the state park, and the closest homes are outside of that area, in the valley below.
Officials believe the wildlife is largely okay and say that fire can create a better habitat for new growth.
How long could the state park be closed?
Pilot Mountain State Park will be closed through the end of the week and into next week, officials said Monday. Park officials are encouraging people to avoid the area.
There is no word on when the park will reopen. State officials said they would first need to check infrastructure and clear any damaged trees.
How can people help?
Pilot Mountain Mayor Evan Cockerham said firefighters could use the community’s help with donations of bottled water, snacks, Gatorade, and other items to stay hydrated. People can drop off the items at the Pilot Knob Volunteer Fire Department on Key Street.
Cockerham also asked that no one burn anything for the time being in Surry and surrounding counties. A burn ban law has been issued for North Carolina.
Fire officials are asking that no one fly drones in the area of the wildfire because it could disrupt their fire-fighting efforts.
Reports of smoke, haze in other counties
Forsyth County Emergency Services said they’re receiving numerous calls about strong smoke and haze in the area. They said it’s from the Pilot Mountain wildfire. Guilford County has also reported smoke sightings. Emergency operators said unless it's an emergency, don't call.
What is the burn ban law?
The burn ban law prohibits all open burning in the affected counties, regardless of whether a permit was previously issued. The issuance of any new permits has also been suspended until the ban is lifted.
Those who violate the burn ban will face a $100 fine plus $183 court costs. Any person responsible for setting a fire may be liable for any expenses related to extinguishing the fire, according to the North Carolina Forest Service. State officials said fire departments and law enforcement officers will enforce the burn ban.