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Five years on, a look back and a look ahead at what the Pinnacle Mountain fire was all about

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Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
L-R: Ray Cassell, Mike Bozzo, Mike Staton, Ronnie Patterson, Michael Weeks, and Trey Cox were six of the more than 150 people who battled the Pinnacle Mountain fire of 2016. This clearing was one of the safe places they could gather during a monthlong ordeal that ultimately burned 10,000 acres in Pickens County and cost $5 million to fight.

If writing has a shortcoming it is the impossibility of conveying just how sumptuous the view from Pinnacle Mountain is on a perfect day. A picture like the one above helps, some, but images alone can’t brush your arm with a light breeze or warm your skin or gift you the particular kind of quiet that only a sleepy mountain wears.

As you can see, being wrapped in so much natural grandeur sure makes it easy to descend into hyperbole. It also makes it hard to resist the wish to bottle every bit of what you’re experiencing and take it with you wherever you go.

What really strikes me, though, amid all this beauty, is that moments like this make it unthinkable to imagine this place on fire. Were I and this collection of foresters and machine operators and firefighters standing on this spot exactly five years ago, the backdrop would be a nightmare.

On Nov. 9, 2016, a campfire most of the way up this mountain got out of hand and ignited a parched forest in the center of a historic drought. Within a few hours, it went from probably containable to out-of-control. By the time it ended on Dec. 16, $5 million and 10,000 acres in and around Pickens County were gone.

In a near-miracle, though, the largest and costliest mountain fire in South Carolina’s history hit exactly the right 10,000 acres to spare lives and homes. The fire swallowed public land where there are no buildings; no one was injured, save for some “blisters on feet,” says Michael Weeks, Pickens County’s unit forester for the South Carolina Forest Commission.

Oh, there were tears. Exhaustion. Weariness. But no serious injuries among the state’s residents nor the 200-plus people per day out here for a month-and-a-half trying to get up and down and all around terrain that was not so accessible.

As it turns out, the fire might just have been a boon to Pinnacle Mountain. Mike Bozzo, the state Forestry Commission’s regional forester in Pickens County, points to all the new, young trees and plants that cropped up once so many acres of old, often overgrown and homogenous flora burned up.

And Mike Staton, chief of the Holly Springs Fire Department, says that because of the fire, his department got some much-needed equipment and the mountains here near Table Rock got some much-needed fire breaks and access roads cut into them to allow firefighters and search-and-rescue teams an easier time getting around the rugged terrain.

Relationships between firefighters and foresters improved a lot too, Bozzo says. He’s endlessly grateful for the local knowledge of guys like Ray Cassell and Trey Cox and Ronnie Patterson, who grew up hunting and hiking these lands.

But Bozzo knows that human assets and local knowledge are at best temporary, and limited. Most of the firefighters of 2016, in fact, were not so intimately familiar as the men you see in that photo above. Many of them came from the West Coast – familiar with wildfire, but not adjusted to the steep, craggy terrain of the Upstate. That’s why he’s looking to upgrade mapping technology that allows crews of the future to find their way around these mountains in the event of a fire or rescue.

But one of the other shortcomings of the written word is that you can’t hear these guys tell you themselves. So it’s a good thing there’s an audio story to listen to above the photo.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.