Special Report: Chimney Rock's recovery after Party Rock wildfire

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The small tourist town of Chimney Rock was still booming in early November of 2016. Leaves were still vibrant with fall colors, but it hadn't rained in weeks. Drought conditions combined with dry air and gusty winds to perfectly set the stage for a massive fire.

"You know, the weather parameters were all pegged at historic highs or lows depending on what you're look at," Marshall Ellis, the Mountain Region Biologist for North Carolina State Parks, said. "So, that drove the fire behavior. Big fire, driven by big weather."

On November 5, 2016, the Party Rock Fire broke out on the eastern flank of Rumbling Bald Mountain and quickly spread through the dead leaves and brush on the forest floor. Evacuations were called in the nearby towns of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure several days later.

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"We saw the fire come over the mountain behind us here and you could see the flames, you know, leaping up into the trees, big plumes of black smoke," Peter O'Leary, business owner and Mayor of Chimney Rock, said. "We were all just wondering if we were going to come back to the same village that was here, you know, before the fire."

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The fire would consume more than 7,100 acres. Homes and people living nearby were unscathed, but Rumbling Bald, it seems, was hit hard.

The Rumbling Bald section of Chimney Rock State Park is popular with hikers, but it's also the premiere wintertime rock climbing destination in the South.

Will Goodson is the treasurer of the Carolina Climbers Coalition. "The photos and the videos that were coming out, it looked really bad for Rumbling Bald," Goodson said. "This is a place that I've personally been enjoying for over 15 years and so our hearts were breaking."

Thankfully, extreme fire behavior is much more limited than it looks, with most of the burn activity staying close to the ground.

"We know that the fire behavior was pretty moderate in that it was not up in the tree tops," Marshall Ellis said. "When you get up to the ridge tops, where the fire had a chance to take advantage of the topography and wind and drier conditions, it burned up into the canopy in some areas."

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The fire and evacuations hurt nearby towns economically. Mayor O'Leary said the first two weeks of November are important to residents who rely on tourist dollars.

"We were in the midst of a pretty good fall color season, leaf color season and, you know, October is the biggest part of that, but it does extend into November, particularly those first two weekends if the weather cooperates," O'Leary explained. "All the indications were that those were going to be very good weekends, and based on our numbers from last year, they were good weekends. So, economically it certainly hurts, and it did hurt the businesses because this time of year a lot of people are kind of saving, building up their savings to get through the winter."

O'Leary said his business lost about 30 percent of its revenue for the month, and believes most of the town lost a similar amount.

Luckily, biologists think the landscape will not change much heading into the spring and summer, and tourists may not even notice the burn scars.

"Most of the landscape we think will look the same way it did during the last growing season, and over time we may see some other small gaps open up. But I don't think people are going to come here and have a shock to the system when they look out across this landscape," Marshall Ellis told News 13.

Invasive species will have a head start on native plants to take over the freshly burned areas this spring, which concerns Ellis, as does delayed tree mortality for areas that saw a hotter burning ground fire. But, Ellis also believes the fire's impacts will be mostly positive on the ecosystem, creating diversity and helping some native plants to thrive and reproduce more prolifically.

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Will Goodson believes the fire's impact moving forward will bring nothing but positives.

"Hikers, climbers, nature lovers, everybody who loves Chimney Rock State Park and Rumbling Bald, was really worried about this place and we came together as a community," Goodson said.

The Carolina Climbers Coalition brought out more than 80 people to a trail day to help clean up the burned areas around Rumbling Bald which, aside from scarred trees, is already back to normal.

At a meeting held on Tuesday, January 31, biologists and forest service personnel recommended the area take more precaution to ensure future fires don't turn deadly. Precautions include creating defensible space on properties, keeping dozer lines intact, and prescribed burning in the area.