Good Fire: Controlled Burn at Florence Nature Preserve
By Sarah Sussman, AmeriCorps Project Conserve Restoration Associate
In recent years, catastrophic wildfires have ravaged communities in the West. And in 2016, we saw major forest fires burning out of control here in Western North Carolina. Forest fires can be dangerous and destructive. However, fire can also be good for our forests and our communities.
This spring, Conserving Carolina participated in a controlled burn at one of our beloved properties, Florence Nature Preserve, located in Gerton NC. Our goals with this fire were to promote biodiversity, enhance wildlife habitat, and prevent catastrophic wildfires. We are happy to report that the burn was safe and successful and we look forward to seeing the resulting changes in the forest.
How We Managed the Burn
On April 7, 2021, the North Carolina Forest Service, in partnership with Conserving Carolina and The Nature Conservancy, conducted a controlled burn at Florence Nature Preserve. The burn took place in the northern portion of the property, within the meadow area. In total, the burn area was 57-acres and it took 8 hours to complete. The North Carolina Forest Service has said the burn was a successful one.
From April 7-8 the trail was closed to visitors. David Lee, Conserving Carolina’s Natural Resource Manager, and two of our AmeriCorps members, Sarah Sussman and Laura Anderson, provided educational outreach about the controlled burn at the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge trailhead and parking area.
Sections of Little Pisgah Road and the trail network that surrounds the burn area were used as a fire line. A fire line is an area of exposed soil that serves to stop fire in its place, which prevents it from spreading to areas that are not part of the controlled burn area. In the week leading up to the burn, The Nature Conservancy sent out a crew to prepare the fire line. They created the fire line by removing debris from the trail and cutting down dead trees, also known as snags, that were near or were sticking out into the trail. Removing natural debris like leaves, sticks, and logs from the trail protects the rest of the forest by ensuring that there is no fuel for the fire to consume once it reaches the fire line.
For years, Conserving Carolina has been hoping for a controlled burn in Florence Nature Preserve. After the 2017 Party Rock Fire that occurred in Lake Lure, NC, which is about 10 miles from Florence Nature Preserve, there was even more urgency to get the burn done.
History of Fire in the Southern Appalachians
Fire is natural and has always played an important role in the way our environment works. In the Southern United States, before human settlement, grasslands were created and maintained by lightning-ignited fires, giving way to endemic species found only in southern grassland ecosystems. Later, these grasslands expanded under indigenous burning, who burned to create open spaces for human development.
By the late-19th and early-20th century, fire was a common occurrence in the Southern Appalachians. Small fires were ignited by trains used to transport timber, and inhabitants of the region used fire to create pastureland and promote early successional growth in previously logged areas. During this time, forest regeneration was lacking due to a combination of timber harvest and intentional burning.
To solve this problem, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture needed to suppress burning efforts to allow the previously logged areas to regenerate. However, the suppression of fire continued well into the mid-20th century, and fire was incorrectly labeled as a destructive force instead of a regenerative one.
Why We Need Fire
In the Southern Appalachians, species of oak and pine, such as the Table Mountain Pine, are adapted to withstand fire. These species also rely on fire and other disturbances to expand their network. With active fire suppression taking place within the last century, these species have been unable to reproduce and expand as frequently as they once did. As a result, species such as rhododendron and red maple are now taking over the understory. This has led to a decrease in biodiversity and limited habitat for animals in the region.
Thankfully, fire can be used as a tool to increase biodiversity; it prevents a monoculture of the same species and provides continued competition on the forest floor. In an area where nonnative and invasive species are present, fire can reduce the number of nonnatives, which allows natives to flourish without competition.
A nutrient-rich soil is also important for plants and the animals that rely on them. Without fire, nutrients are returned to the soil through decomposition. With the added benefit of fire, decomposition of dead matter is sped up, which allows nutrients to be recycled at a faster rate.
As our populations have increased and we have moved into more densely populated communities, fire suppression has intensified. Fire has been suppressed for decades, which has allowed fuel loads to exceed their natural capacity, increasing the risk of large, uncontained wildfires caused naturally by lightning strike or unnaturally by humans. In contrast to an unmanaged wildfire, a controlled burn, like the one that occurred at Florence Nature Preserve, contains low-lying flames that only reach a height of one foot off the ground, keeping the fire from climbing up into the tree canopy.
Benefits for Wildlife
A commonly asked question when doing controlled burns is, “Where do the animals go?” Animals, like humans, are smart and capable of understanding threats that they encounter. Fast-moving animals like deer, bear, and birds will flee to other parts of the forest, while slower animals like turtles, frogs, and worms will bury themselves in the ground until the fire has passed.
Fire improves habitat for many of these animals; it clears leaf litter and allows seeds to emerge, which are important sources of food. Additionally, newly emerging plants provide foraging opportunities and new structural cover.
Sarah and Laura, our AmeriCorps members who were stationed at the trailhead, visited the burn site a couple hours in, and were happy to report that the burn was carrying on as planned and that they had observed birds flying in and out of the burn site, looking for emerging worms and other insects.
In summary, fire is proven to be an effective land management tool. It promotes forest growth, recycles nutrients, and protects our local community from uncontained wildfires caused by excessive fuel loads.
You can learn more about controlled burns here.