One year ago today, a wildfire started at South Mountains State Park in Burke County.

What initially was reported as a 75-acre blaze exploded to a 6,435-acre conflagration within a matter of weeks. A cause still has not been determined for what came to be known as the Chestnut Knob Fire, and likely never will be.

Personnel battling and strategizing around the fire peaked at some 400 workers, including all 19 local fire departments, crews from multiple states, the North Carolina and United States forest services, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation and Burke County Emergency Services.

Burke County Fire Marshal Mike Willis said investigators with the NCFS were able to determine where the fire started, but the damage caused by the fire made it impossible to figure out what sparked the blaze that burned for one day short of a full month.

“The last ruin was undetermined because of the damage and location of where the seat of the fire was thought to be,” Willis said. “The state investigator with the fire service, my last conversation with him, said it was too destroyed around the area to pinpoint an exact cause. They know the area of origin, but the exact cause was undetermined.”

The Chestnut Knob Fire was part of a record-breaking wildfire period last fall throughout the southeast, including in western North Carolina, where at least nine wildfires burned tens of thousands of acres. That meant firefighting resources were stretched thin across the region and the NCFS had to rotate its assets around to the various fires as best it could.

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Flames rise from the Chestnut Knob wildfire at South Mountains State Park in Burke County.

Ludie Bond, a wildfire mitigation specialist and public information officer with the Florida Forest Service, said the severe drought the area was experiencing at the time of the fire and the tough terrain of the state park made the fire challenging to suppress. Those factors led to the massiveness of the blaze after officials early on expressed hope it could be contained to 150 acres or so.

“Weather and terrain and resources (were big factors),” Bond said. “It was an extreme drought with no end in sight. We had lightning coming through the area during that time period. We had wind gusts and low relative humidity. Weather will dictate how a fire will or will not behave. The weather was absolutely a contributing factor on that fire behavior and the difficulty in being able to contain and suppress that fire.

“That mountainous terrain makes access difficult. Typically in the southeast, we’re able to contain fires with bulldozers. That’s not so much the case in mountainous terrain. Many hand crew resources were brought in. Firefighters would get out there and hike up into the mountains to put in lines. Air resources were something we had to utilize with the water drops.”

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A firefighter uses a chainsaw to clear an area near fire lines at the Chestnut Knob Fire at South Mountains State Park in Burke County.

The FFS Green Team arrived about a week into the fire’s tenure and assumed command of the fire at a headquarters set up at the Foothills Higher Education Center in Morganton. Bond provided a wealth of information to citizens through the Chestnut Knob Fire Facebook page and through information given to The News Herald, among other means.

Bond said her team quickly realized it was important to keep folks in the area well-informed because it became apparent right away it was a personal issue for so many in the county.

“We really got a sense that this park and South Mountains aren’t just where people live, it’s part of their home,” Bond said. “It’s obvious the community of Morganton goes back multiple generations, so it was certainly the emotional ties to the area that were being attacked by wildfire. It was very personal to so many people.

“I think it was very important for our outreach to get information out to people on social media, by phone, by media from the community newspaper, from community meetings to one-on-one. It was very, very important that we kept everybody up-to-date day and night from the time we were there because it was very important to you all.”

While the concern was well-founded, the wildfire didn’t damage or destroy a single structure on private property or park lands. Just as importantly, not a single injury was reported during the month-long firefighting effort.

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Flames rise from a firing operation performed by crews at the Chestnut Knob wildfire at South Mountains State Park in Burke County.

Former Valdese Town Manager Jeff Morse, who lives near the park, was one of the citizens whose home was threatened.

“Our level of anxiety started to increase as we started seeing the (smoke) plumes developing around the South Mountains park,” Morse said. “Of course, we all noticed it, but there was no concern because it was so far away and there was no anticipation it would even come close.

“As the weeks moved on and the smoke started getting thicker and we started seeing flames at night, the anxiety got dramatically increased and we started looking at plans to evacuate if the winds didn’t go our way.”

Morse has dealt with wildfires before, but never as a private citizen. He said the feeling of having your home and possessions under threat was a feeling he’d never experienced.

“The stress level was really tremendous,” he said. “It’s something I’d never been through as a homeowner. I remember back when I was city manager years ago and we had the High Peak fires. They came into Valdese and I remember standing in the cemetery with pitchforks and shovels trying to make a line of defense.

“As the (Chestnut Knob) fire increased, we started seeing flames right within 50 feet of our house. We moved all of our personal belongings out of the house and stored stuff. We basically were prepared for the worst situation. One thing that gave us such a calmness during the stress was the fact that so many volunteer firemen and professionals from all over the southeast were coming in to stand guard over our neighborhoods and our property. I’ll never forget the meeting we had at Enola Fire Department and the support we had from everyone from the fire service, EMS and everything else.”

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A firefighter waters down hot spots at the Chestnut Knob wildfire at South Mountains State Park in Burke County.

Bond said folks’ concern about the fire and how it affected their home county was part of an overarching sense of support and gratitude from citizens. She said her team was treated with true hospitality and it was overwhelmed with donations and kind words during the three weeks it commanded the fire operation.

“It’s obvious when people’s homes are affected and they may have to evacuate and the roadways are closed and that kind of thing, but even people who didn’t live right where the fire was occurring were so concerned,” Bond said. “We were humbled by the outpouring and the welcoming spirit of the area and the community.

“Upon our departure and reflecting on our time spent in Morganton, the hospitality of the community for us personally, for the firefighters who were there, as well as the donations that came in, it was really remarkable. Many of our team members remarked if our country as a whole was more like Morganton, our country wouldn’t have any problems.”

Willis said while the outpouring was a surprise to the visitors, he’s come to expect it from his neighbors here.

“They were almost shocked at what community support occurred during that time,” Willis said. “When they first mentioned it, I just said, ‘Welcome to North Carolina.’ It’s the way we do things. It seems like everybody comes together in tragedy and that’s exactly what happened there.

“With a lot of the bad that’s going on in the world, usually when there’s a crisis and people need to come together, everybody steps up and goes above and beyond to make sure their neighbors are taken care of. I’ve been fortunate to see that all my life. That’s not changed in the 36 years I’ve been in this. It’s always been that way.”

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wildfire aerial view

For as many acres as were burned at the state park, it appears the park will not suffer any long-term consequences. James Rushur, a ranger at the park, said the ecosystem there has not suffered. In fact, the fire may end up being a positive event for the environment.

“It was a horrible event. There was a time when people’s houses could have been lost, and thankfully they weren’t, and people on the fire could have been injured. Thankfully, nothing happened where somebody got injured,” Rushur said. “As far as the actual environment, I would say it’s been a plus.

“A lot of that area on Chestnut Knob had downed trees and limbs and that’s been burned out. In a way, it’s protected us against another fire. Not to say another fire couldn’t happen, but if another fire happens, that area has been cleared out really well.”

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Crews work to repair areas disturbed by the creation of fire lines at the Chestnut Knob Fire.

Rushur said the Chestnut Knob area previously was densely populated with white pine trees planted by a paper company. The white pines had gone to the top of the hill and were burned out during the fire, he said. The table mountain pines that are supposed to be at the top of the mountain may have seeded because of the fire, he said.

The wildfire may have a similar effect to a prescribed burn in the coming years, Rushur said.

“I think over time, you have dominant species (like the white pine) that take over the top of the mountain,” he said. “Fire will actually slow down that dominance and other species that should be at the top of the mountain, as opposed to the bottom of the mountain, will re-grow there.”

There have been various cleanup programs at the park in past months to help rehabilitate the area following the fire. There still is more work to be done, however, Rushur said. More hazardous trees have been cut down — such as hemlocks that are dying due to aphid attacks — for visitor safety. The Chestnut Knob trail is in the process of being rerouted and some of it reopened in September. A second section is under work and part of the original trail has been decommissioned.

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Crews make repairs to a trail at South Mountains State Park in Burke County.

The wildfire had varying impacts on the local economy. While both South Mountains and Lake James State Park were closed during the fire and tourism income was lost there, local hotels and restaurants saw an uptick in business from the influx of support staff. The FFS previously estimated its expenditures for the fire to be around $4 million.

Overall, the firefighting effort was considered to be a success for those involved. Willis had been the fire marshal for just a few days when the blaze started but said his office was greatly assisted by the state and out-of-state agencies, but also by the efforts of the local fire departments.

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Flames light up the sky at the wildfire at South Mountains State Park.

“The biggest thing is how well our fire departments come together when they’re needed,” Willis said. “There was no question, no argument. Whatever they needed to do get the job done, they all pulled together and did it. It was really little effort on our office’s part. It was just bring everybody together and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve got and here’s what we need to do.’

“Everybody stepped in and went above and beyond to make sure our community was protected. It was benefit to me not to have to really do a whole lot of organizing to it. They knew what to do and jumped in and did it.”

Justin Epley can be reached at jepley@morganton.com or 828-432-8943.

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