Pilot Mountain Is Burning. North Carolina, Climate Change Just Got Personal.

A massive wildfire has been burning at NC's Pilot Mountain since Saturday, torching hundreds of acres. (Photo by Richard Hill)

By Billy Ball

November 30, 2021

We can’t be in denial any longer. Expect more blazes like this in North Carolina as the planet warms. 

Funny thing about mountains.

The view from up there can make it all seem so orderly down below. So planned. You don’t have to be the religious sort to see that.

My family camped at Pilot Mountain over Halloween weekend. Our friends mapped it out so the kids could trick or treat tent-to-tent.

Strangers in neighboring campsites joined in too, offering up sweets like they knew we were coming.

Later we scaled the mountain, or rather we scaled the “Little Pinnacle” neighboring Pilot Mountain’s distinctive knob, aka “Big Pinnacle.”

I remember the spectacular greens and browns and blues below. Someone long ago invented painting looking at views like this.

And I remember thinking, as we watched rain clouds sweep over nearby Mount Airy, that it made even the tumult of these last two years seem distant, like billowing smoke on the horizon.

Something may be on fire down below, but you can’t smell the smoke up there.

Well, today the fire is up there.


Since Saturday, fire fighters in the Pilot Mountain area have been battling a wildfire that’s already burned roughly 500 acres. By the time it’s over, firefighters expect several hundred more acres will be scorched.

We don’t know how this fire started, although officials say they expect it was caused by humans. But abnormally dry conditions in the state have fed the blaze, prompting a burning ban in all 100 counties Tuesday.

There is a tendency to think about wildfires like this as, well, wild. Like they don’t need a cause. They are, we believe, the act of some vengeful god somewhere. A force of nature. But it’s past time to start seeing these fires as the work of humanity.

Climate scientists tell us that as our planet warms, we can expect a lot more uncontrolled wildfires. They are one of the many plagues associated with climate change as parts of the planet grow hotter and dryer.

Yet many of us tend to think of wildfires as a problem solely for the western United States. Take a look at Big Pinnacle smoldering and drop that notion.

Sadness is appropriate in times like these, but anger is underrated if it inspires us. And while it may be too late to stop climate change’s worst impacts, we can at least mitigate them.

Action now can make the seas a little lower, the fires a little smaller.

It will take big, bold ideas and international cooperation to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. If you do anything while processing this Pilot Mountain fire, take some time to learn about climate change policies at the national and international level, and the leaders who support them.

Many of those climate change policies are found within President Biden’s Build Back Better bill passed by the US House this month. That legislation, which faces unanimous opposition from Republicans — including Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis — is awaiting action in the US Senate.

And show your support for allies fighting climate change, groups like the NC Conservation Network, the NC Sierra Club, Sol Nation and so many more.

Hope for rain. Hope for change. And hope for another camping trip.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this ran in Cardinal & Pine’s Monday newsletter. To sign up for the free newsletter, click here.]


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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