Park Service addresses board
DOBSON, Feb 05, 2013 (The Mount Airy News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Procedures are now in place that should prevent lapses in communication like those that resulted in hundreds of frightened citizens during November's out-of-control burn at Pilot Mountain State Park, Park Superintendent Matt Windsor told the county board of commissioners Monday night.
The update from the North Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation came as the board convened for its regularly-scheduled meeting in the Commissioner's Meeting Room at the Surry County Government Center in Dobson.
"We've made some improvements to the program," Windsor told the board. "And all prescribed burns in the future will have more guidelines."
Windsor said that "several things could have gone better," with the November planned burn.
"But if they had, I wouldn't be here talking to you today," he said.
While he noted that serious lapses in communication with the public resulted in a lot of frightened people, Windsor maintained that prescribed burns to control undergrowth at the park are still "the most effective tool we have in our arsenal."
"Since the Pilot Mountain fire, our tactics have changed and we aren't going to be lighting multiple fires at the same time, but it's really important for us that the prescribed burn program continue," he said. "While I'm sure it was frightening to surrounding residents and I regret that we scared people, there are great benefits to the park ecologically and there's almost no adverse effect from prescribed burns."
Commissioner Larry Phillips said that from the board's perspective it was the lack of information received by the public that was most concerning.
"The people who live around the mountain live there for a reason," he said. "I'm not in a position to question your policy and that was never my intention. My intention was, and still is, focused on the fact that on the night this happened I saw a frightened public, and unnecessarily so."
With better communication, Phillips said, much of that fear could have been eliminated.
"What I'd like to hear tonight is how we're going to improve that communication so we don't have to experience something like that again," he said.
Windsor said that in the future, more announcements will be made to nearby property owners prior to any fires being started at the park.
"This will be a way for people who live immediately around the park to get an update when there will be a burn," he said. "And we're also going to be putting signs on secondary roads around the park notifying the public when we're planning a burn."
Commissioner Paul Johnson asked Windsor about whether the fire should have been started in the first place.
The park superintendent told the board that communications problems among various agencies handling the burn contributed to the issue.
"We did have communications issues as we were starting the fire because of radio signals and cell phone service," he said.
And by the time he received a notice that the fire shouldn't be started it was too late.
"Since then, something else we're doing is being added to a daily weather briefing," Windsor said. "We did have a little bit of a breakdown there, but it's since been taken care of."
But Commissioner R.F. "Buck" Golding, the board chairman during the fire, wasn't convinced.
Noting that Windsor brought up the difficult terrain several times during his board update, Golding said that issue isn't going to change.
"That terrain is going to be the same the next time you plan a burn," he said. "We, as a county, can't burn trash in our landfill but you come along and set a fire and the air quality around that park was dramatically changed for some time because of that.
"What you did, and the excitement among the populace you created, upset a lot of people and they won't forget it anytime soon," Golding added.
Windsor said he is sorry for any fear the fire instilled in the public.
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.
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