Moderate Damage in North Carolina Wildfire

A week after the largest wildfire to hit Crowders Mountain State Park in 20 years, officials are still taking stock of damage on about 116 scorched acres.

But they don't expect the impact on trees, plants or wildlife will be severe.

That's because the March 7 fire, driven by 40-mile-per hour winds, moved so fast it didn't linger long enough to kill the roots of large trees. Flames blackened many trees at the bottom, but left them green at the top.

Park officials said mammals such as deer, squirrels, foxes and rabbits probably escaped to other parts of the 5,000-acre park, 25 miles west of Charlotte. Those animals will find plenty to eat and be back in their old habitat soon, officials said. But many snakes, turtles, lizards and amphibians such as salamanders were likely killed.

Still, officials felt lucky.

"Forest fires are dangerous things and this could have been a much worse situation for sure," Park Superintendent Joe Sox said Tuesday as he walked through the blackened woods near where the fire started. "Thank God nobody got hurt and that it looks like we'll have a quick recovery."

On March 25, personnel from the Division of Parks and Recreation in Raleigh will help Crowders rangers assess the damage, which is scattered across a rugged section of the park where there are no roads or trails.

State officials said the Crowders fire was the first major blaze in the state park system this year.

John Taggart, a state parks resource manager, said fires can actually help parks by burning up leaves and dead limbs -- fuel for future fires.

The ash is rich in nutrients that "are almost like fertilizer," he said. "You see stuff start greening up again soon."

The fire started around 1:30 p.m. when high winds pushed a tree onto a power line on Pinnacle Road near N.C. 161, Sox said. Flames quickly blazed a quarter-mile-wide path up the western slope of the 1,705-foot-high Kings Pinnacle, one of the two highest peaks in the park.

"It was crackling and popping at the start and as it progressed created a little weather of its own," Sox said. "Air got sucked into the fire and it sounded like a steam locomotive charging up the mountain."

Park rangers told him they spotted 10-foot walls of flames in some spots. The acrid smoke and thick haze blew at least as far as Gastonia, seven miles to the east.

A small army of firefighters, including a helicopter from the N.C. Forestry Service, battled the blaze into the evening. They finally got it under control by the time it reached the top of Kings Pinnacle. Later that night, rain soaked the smoldering mountain and helped contain the fire, although stumps and dead standing trees smoldered for several days.

On Tuesday, Sox walked through the charred woods, examining large hardwoods that had withstood the flames.

"The faster a fire moves the less intensity of heat stays on any one spot," he said. "Crown fires are the worst. They're real tree-killers because fire gets into the tops of trees. That's the way it goes out West. A whole forest explodes."

Sox ran his hand along a blackened hardwood surface.

"These durn little block-barked oak trees, people call them black jack oaks, they'll come back like crazy," he said. "They're fire-resistant."

As birds sang and a breeze stirred treetops, the whole forest offered the promise of new life.

"You can tell there's been a big fire," Sox said. "But come late spring, you should be seeing green here again."