Lake James State Park Assists Wildfire Efforts

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All of the signs last fall suggested it would be an active fire season in western North Carolina. Extreme drought and low relative humidity, combined with ample fuels like fallen leaves, needles, branches and trees on the forest floor made many state parks in the West District a powder keg just waiting for a spark. Burn bans were put in place across the region, but the sparks came during the first weekend in November, when Chimney Rock (Nov. 5) and South Mountains (Nov. 6) state parks reported wildfire within their boundaries. Within 24 hours, Lake James State Park rangers and maintenance mechanics, all with wildland firefighting certifications, sprang to the aid of their comrades who were already struggling to control the growing blazes. On November 10, the unprecedented decision to close the park in its entirety was made to allow the staff to focus all of its efforts on the Chestnut Knob Fire in South Mountains State Park, which was growing exponentially by the day in steep, rugged terrain, and no rain forecast for the foreseeable future.

“What amazed me was the reaction of the people who were in the park when we were ordered to clear it and close the gates,” said Park Ranger Jamie Cameron, who was on duty when the order came to shut the park down during a busy fall weekend. “Everyone I spoke to understood why we were doing what we were doing and offered their support and good wishes. Even the campers who had their weekend plans disrupted by something they couldn’t see.” Lake James State Park remained closed to visitors until November 28. For the next month, the Lake James crew dedicatednitself and its equipment to the massive, multiagency effort to bring the fire under control. Even seasonal workers and office assistant Lisa Crane were brought in to work at the command center to help offload and organize the massive amounts of donations from the affected communities to support the firefighters. The work started at the 7:30 a.m. daily briefing and often lasted well beyond 6 p.m., when the night crews took over. At its height, nearly 400 firefighters (from as far away as Alaska and New Mexico), 35 engines and 10 bulldozers were assigned to the incident. Included among these, N.C. Forest Service B.R.I.D.G.E. crews provided critical manpower and experience on the fire lines.

By November 18, the 24-7 effort to build fire containment lines, remove snags that could fall and allow the fire to escape and find and extinguish hot spots halted its growth at 6,435 acres. Remarkably, not a single serious injury was reported and not a single home or structure was lost.

“The response to this emergency from parks across the state was nothing short of remarkable,” said Lake James State Park Superintendent Nora Coffey, who spent more than 10 days on the Chestnut Knob Fire herself. “Our staff put in long hours for days on end and worked extremely hard in the face of this challenge. We are proud of the work we did and proud to know that if the situation were reversed we can count on our fellow rangers and maintenance mechanics to come to our aid.”

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The work at South Mountains State Park did not end when the fire was officially declared 100-percent contained on December 3. Affected trails and roads will need to be rehabilitated and new hazard trees will need to come down before the park can fully reopen. The work will likely take months and the staff at Lake James State Park will likely be called to help – it’s what they do best.

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