On this day in WNC history: On April 3, 1924, a large forest fire burned in the hilly and heavily-wooded northeastern section of Rutherford County below the South Mountains. The fire had raged for a week by that point, burning somewhere between 8,000-10,000 acres and smoldering for a time afterward. This blaze mostly consumed trees, though a handful of homes—including the former “castle” of moonshiner Amos Owens—were destroyed.

This fire, and several others that occurred in a dry 1924, helped expose weaknesses in the state’s fire-fighting capacity. The previous winter had been long and cold, limiting the sap flowing in trees in the spring. A late summer drought also contributed to damaging wildfires all along the East Coast. In North Carolina at the time, 26 counties (including Avery, Buncombe, and Jackson) cooperated in a statewide fire suppression network with paid wardens. Rutherford County, however, did not have such a system, leading citizens to eventually ask the sheriff for help in fighting the blaze, presumably with prisoner labor.

At the end of the year, the State Forest Service touted the effectiveness of cooperating counties. In 213 fires during the fall, the average fire had been limited to 125 acres and cost significantly less than the $100,000 of damage in Rutherford County. More counties gradually began professionalization of their fire-fighting, and with the Civilian Conservation Corp’s assistance, the state engaged in wholesale forestry and fire management improvements in the 1930s. Many of their fire towers are still around today. By 1931, Rutherford County gained a fire warden, C.E. Biggerstaff, and named a fire lookout tower after him, near the location of the 1924 blaze.


Asheville Citizen, Apr 4, 1924

Amos Owens’ “castle” from 1901 biography, North Carolina Digital Collections

Fire Watch Tower, Graham County, courtesy Graham County Public Library