It’s been six months since wildfires turned Rumbling Bald Mountain into a giant candelabra. But rumors of destruction around the nearby towns have been, to misquote Twain, greatly exaggerated.
As hardwood trees leaf out, the mountains have turned magically green again. Much to the relief of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure, it’s hard to tell fires burned 7,100 acres last November.
Hikers to the top of iconic Chimney Rock “won’t see any difference at all,” said Amber White, a marketing assistant at Chimney Rock State Park.
Lake Lure, whose 1,400 year-round residents swell to 10,000 after Memorial Day, is back to business as usual. “Everything has bounced back,” said town manager Ron Nalley.
The town park most harmed by the siege was damaged by bulldozed fire lines that saved homes, not by flames, Nalley said. The lines have been regraded and replanted. A town water tank threatened by the fire was saved.
The so-called Party Rock fire began Nov. 5 about one mile north of Lake Lure after months of drought. It wasn’t fully snuffed out until more than three weeks later, after hundreds of firefighters from across the country battled it.
Nobody got hurt and no structures were reported lost. The community banded together to bunk firefighters in local businesses and stay up all night preparing meals for them.
The fire’s scars aren’t readily visible from the towns because it didn’t get hot enough, in most places, to consume whole trees, said Matt Barker, assistant district forester in the region for the N.C. Forest Service. The fire instead stayed low to the ground.
Much of the Rumbling Bald fire crept slowly down the mountain toward Chimney Rock, he said, burning with less intensity than a fire racing up a slope. While some trees died, he said, “overall, I don’t think there’s a lot of catastrophic damage.”
Actually, the fire did some good. It burned away deep layers of dead leaves on the ground, releasing nutrients that are good for plant growth, Barker said. The flames also benefited an Appalachian tree species, table mountain pine, whose seedlings grow best after regular low-intensity fires.
Just as the Party Rock fire was finally extinguished, the mountain resort town of Gatlinburg, Tenn., went up in flames.
“Had the wind gotten up like it did in Gatlinburg, we would have had a lot of structural damage and possibly loss of life,” said Tommy Hartzog, executive director of the Hickory Nut Gorge Chamber of Commerce.
As it was, access to Chimney Rock was restricted for 10 days as firefighters battled the blaze and evacuations were ordered. Some tourists, Hartzog said, saw images of the Tennessee disaster and “probably related it to Chimney Rock.”
Now, he added, “they all ask, where was the fire? You can’t see much evidence of it.”
All of which left another sprout to grow from the ashes: gratitude.