The sky above Surry County, North Carolina, smells of burnt wood and heavy soot tonight. The atmosphere is hazed with a melancholy brown smoke and the forest is eerily calm. The chestnut oaks and the pitch pines creak from the dryness of the air.
And a wildfire on Pilot Mountain rages on. The fire started Saturday.
From a distance, the top of the mountain looks like a glowing ember of Kingsford charcoal. Three hundred acres have been consumed, and that number will have grown by the time you read this.
Andy Griffith was born and bred in Surry County, just 14 miles up the road in the hamlet of Mount Airy, otherwise known as Mayberry.
Pilot Mountain State Park is a magnificent place. The Yadkin River, one of the longest rivers in the Old North State, weaves directly through the pine-choked corridor of the park before easing its way into South Carolina.
There are trails here with overlooks pretty enough to compromise the well-being of a cardiac patient. On a clear day you can stand atop Pilot Mountain and see halfway to Fiji.
Simply put, this is God’s country.
Meanwhile, atop this 2,421-foot flaming quartzite rock, fire crews work incessantly, battling wind changes and dry conditions, trying to contain hell.
These are men and women who will likely receive no public recognition for their bravery. Which isn’t unusual in their line of work. Firefighters, like all public servants, are accustomed to being overlooked.
One of my longtime friends is a career fire medic. He says, “We fly under the radar. I won’t say that we’re overlooked, but most people don’t really stop and think about what we do. But hey, it’s okay, we’re not doing this for the press.”
Right now, there are 29,705 fire departments in the Lower Forty-Eight. There are roughly 1,115,000 career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S., an estimated 93,000 are female. The Forest Service employs another 10,000 firefighters for responding to wildfires.
These are living comic-book heroes minus the Spandex. They reside in your town, in your neighborhood, they sit in the pew beside you, their dogs go potty in your yard.
No, you probably won’t see their faces on the national news, but you can see them in the supermarket. Or at Friday-night ball games, sitting in the bleachers, cheering loudly for their sophomores.
They look just like you and me, except they aren’t like you and me at all. They are first responders who willingly and repeatedly endanger their lives. What’s more, for many of them, this fatally dangerous occupation is a volunteer gig.
And they’re good at what they do.
In 2019 there were 1,291,500 fires in this country. The fires collectively caused about 14.8 billion dollars in property damage. That’s billion with B. But here’s the thing: Out of all those fires, there were only 3,704 fire-related deaths. Why so few?
Firefighters. These men and women are not only doing their jobs, they’re writing the manual on the profession.
In a way, the Pilot Mountain fire is an eerie reminder of the Smoky Mountain wildfires from five years ago. I was working in the area during the Smoky fires. I’ll never forget it.
Almost overnight the air turned to ash and the sky became black. The roads were blocked with emergency crews lining the highways. I couldn’t breathe right for two months because of all the smoke.
To call the Great Smoky fires “bad” would be an understatement. The fires were scenes straight from Dante’s bestseller.
In roughly a month, the Smoky Mountain fires consumed about 10,000 acres, making the wildfires the deadliest in Eastern U.S. history since 1947. And yet—here is my point—only 14 people died.
How is this possible? How could such a large fire claim so few? How could this be, especially when you consider that thousands were displaced from homes, and hundreds of brick-and-mortar structures were burned to powder?
Fire crews, baby. That’s how. It took roughly 800 firemen and firewomen to help contain the fires in Gatlinburg alone.
Ironically, last night when the fire began on Pilot Mountain, Mount Airy was holding its annual Christmas parade. The festive floats rolled down the main drag, lit-up for the holidays.
It was your typical small-town event. High school bands marched, the public safety vehicles cruised by at point-two miles per hour, and a middle-aged guy dressed like Santa did the screwdriver wave to his fans.
But atop Pilot Mountain the NC Forestry Service, the Pilot Mountain State Park Rangers, and a slew of volunteer fire departments from Pinnacle, South Surry, Double Creek, Westfield, Bannertown, Shoals, and Fall Creek, were doing their jobs to make the world a safer place.
Firefighters do this kind of thing every day, every month, every year, in Everytown, USA. Career fire workers, fire medics, and firefighting volunteers are always on standby to make sure your family is okay.
Although they blend with the rest of America, you come in contact with them more often than you realize. You see their pumper trucks rolling on the highway. You ride past their firehouses and see the garage doors slung open, their turntable ladders ready for business. You know them.
So if you get a chance this week, thank these men and women for their service. I promise that your gratitude will surprise them.
Because as I say, they don’t do it for the press.
johnearly10 - November 29, 2021 10:16 am
God bless all firefighters and thank you for all you do! I think you are angels sent by the Lord.
Deb Ivie - November 29, 2021 11:42 am
My husband is a firefighter/medic and your words are very true. Thank you for this tribute. There are sacrifices that many are unaware of. I am forwarding your column to him and he will quietly appreciate your words from his heart and soul.
Linnea Miles - November 29, 2021 11:47 am
So proud of the hot, hard work that the brave men and women of my beautiful home county are doing. It’s troubling to see Pilot Mountain ablaze. Surry County- you’re always home to me! Thanks, Sean.
niobrarariverrat - November 29, 2021 12:03 pm
Thanks, Sean. I appreciate your appreciation of our stalwart firefighters nationwide. But please correct your terminology. Our agencies, both federal and state, go by the name ‘forest service,’ not ‘forestry service.’ Thus, your reference to my friends in North Carolina, should be to the ‘North Carolina Forest Service.’ I currently work for the Nebraska Forest Service, and I formerly worked for the US Forest Service. Thank you.
Nancy Crews - November 29, 2021 2:10 pm
❤your writing. Thank you firefighters.
Trudy - November 29, 2021 1:00 pm
Well stated. Thanks to all of our firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement. I’ve hike Pilot Mountain a number of times over the years. My nephew lives 5 miles from there. It’s so sad to see it burning. God bless those working to contain the fires.
Suellen - November 29, 2021 1:14 pm
We lived close to the firehouse when my children were growing up. It was all volunteer and when the siren went off you knew to watch out for all the neighbors speeding to the firehouse the blue lights flashing atop their personal cars My children’s Grandpa was one of them for decades. Now my nephew is serving in Virginia. Thank God for the men and women who rush into danger to keep the rest of us safe.
OK FF-EMT - November 29, 2021 1:20 pm
Thank you, Sean, for your description of firefighters. Some of those volunteers you wrote about definitely would have had other things they could have been doing. But they dropped it and they’re probably still out there.
Dorothy Holloway - November 29, 2021 1:22 pm
God bless our firefighters and first responders.
Jan - November 29, 2021 1:41 pm
Excellent reminder of the wonderful and thankless work these men and women do. God bless our firefighters and first responders! Thank you, Sean
Paul McCutchen - November 29, 2021 1:42 pm
The women and men do great jobs. I would say brave but it is way beyond just brave. It is all I can do to light a match for a campfire so I can’t think what it would take to walk into woods on fire.
My thanks to the Forest Service.
Toni Adcock - November 29, 2021 2:17 pm
From a Volunteer Firefighter and First Responder family – Thanks!
Karen - November 29, 2021 2:20 pm
Sean, thank you for your tribute to our firefighters.
Mary Anne Brannon - November 29, 2021 2:36 pm
Thank you. Sean. This is a wonderful tribute. My dad was a firefighter for 30+ years. I saw him go into a burning building just as the roof fell in. It was a miracle he survived.
Stacey Wallace - November 29, 2021 2:55 pm
May God bless these heroes. They do what I’m too afraid to do.
Cathy M - November 29, 2021 3:03 pm
Thank you for reminding us of the dedication and service of these men who put their lives on the line in order to save others . We are indebted to each and every one
Shelton A. - November 29, 2021 3:24 pm
God bless the firefighters working in NC. That’s my home state and I had the biggest crush for a girl from Mt. Airy when I was in high school. May the fire be contained/put out very soon and those fighting the fires go home to their families.
Sandra Jones - November 29, 2021 3:53 pm
God bless all these heroes
Nancy Carnahan - November 29, 2021 4:24 pm
I live in North Eastern California, home of the Dixie Fire. We spent a lot of time this summer trying to breather through smoke and ashes. That fire was about a million acres. We truly appreciate fire crews.
Patti - November 29, 2021 4:36 pm
My sons are both volunteer firefighters. Calls can come in at the most inconvenient times but they embrace the challenge! Yes, if you know one, thank them.
Liza - November 29, 2021 4:37 pm
Thanks for the shout-out to fire fighters! Talk about your unsung heroes! 💜💜💜💜💜💜
Gayle Wilson - November 29, 2021 6:48 pm
Sean, thanks for the nod to firefighters. My dad was a firefighter for 35 years. When he retired, he remembered his tribe by taking them food to different stations on holidays but also on just any ordinary days. When he died, one of his favorite stations borrowed an old fire truck and hoisted the largest American flag I have ever seen on a ladder that stood 12 ft in the air. On the day of his burial, they came in their truck and led the procession to the graveside. And there they honored him for not only his service as a fire fighter, but also as a WWII veteran.
Linda Moon - November 29, 2021 9:12 pm
I’d never thought of brown haze as melancholy. Now I do, and thank you for that new thought as I was reading your column. I’m grateful for reading about the firefighters and their service, especially for their work in the Great Smoky Mountains. So if I see any firefighters, I’ll thank them. And more thanks to you for giving them some press today.
MAM - November 29, 2021 9:12 pm
We live in the West, where fires can rage for weeks and months, destroying old growth forests and setting them back generations before the trees can grow again on what sometimes becomes sterilized soil from the heat of the fires. We love our firefighters out here, because we know they are keeping us safe. But we have to do our own work to protect our property from the ravages of fire by cutting down dry grass and weeds, especially right around our homes. It’s called Firewise, and we do it every year after our rainy season. Thank you, Sean, for recognizing the firefighters for their work!
MURIELLE T BENNETT - November 29, 2021 9:26 pm
Your article hit home today. Not only did my husband and I drive past Pilot Mountain on Sunday morning on our way home to Ohio after a week in NC visting family, but I also found out my 48 year old firefighter nephew was being discharged from Massachusetts General Hospital’s burn unit today. On November 6th, he saved six trapped people from a burning six-family building. He received third degree burns over 40% of his body when a flash-over happened as he was trying to save the last person, a woman trapped on a second floor balcony. My nephew was saved by one of his quick-thinking crew members, who knocked the ladder he was on to the ground. The woman on the second floor died, but six families were saved that night. My nephew still has much work to do as his body heals, but he will live to go back to the job he loves.
Bkr - November 30, 2021 4:28 am
Thank you Sean. My husband was the chief of the Epes VFD for almost 20’yrs. Surgery can cancer forced him
Out. Your words mean a lot. Thank you.
LH - December 1, 2021 2:06 pm
Excellent article sir, thanks for sharing your wordsmith abilities to deliver a well thought out thank you to we the dragon slayers
Linda Ates Hill - December 7, 2021 3:41 pm
Since I live in East Bend, NC and Pilot Mountain is visible from my driveway-this horrific fire is personal to me. Pilot Mountain state park is beautiful, replete with overlooks, hiking trails and waterfalls. From what I understand there haven’t been any deaths of human beings, I pray that is true for the local animals as well. A forest fire is a terrifying thing. That there are men & women with the courage to fight the raging monsters that a forest fire is-is a wonder to behold. Bless them all! And a pox upon whoever’s carelessness caused this fire! The forest will recover & come back as beautiful-but different, as before. But it’s going to take a very long time.