After the Fires: Rethinking WNC Ecosystems After Catastrophic Blazes

Published Wednesday, December 14, 2016 at 11:10 am

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In the wake of fires that burned 55,531 acres throughout Western North Carolina, conservation and forestry experts are trying to apply what they’ve learned from years of studying the area’s ecology to attempt to sort out the near and long-term effects of the blazes.

While rains helped end the waves of fires nearly two weeks earlier, fire damage near State Road 80 outside Marion remains obvious on Dec. 12, 2016. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press.

While rains helped end the waves of fires nearly two weeks earlier, fire damage near State Road 80 outside Marion remains obvious on Dec. 12, 2016. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press.

“Our area has some of the largest relatively unfragmented swaths of forest land on the east coast, but there are certain forest types that are ecologically out of whack,” Megan Sutton, the Southern Blue Ridge Program Director of the NC Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, told Carolina Public Press.

For instance, non-native species now account for roughly 15 percent of the flora of the 1.1 million acres of national forest in Western North Carolina and there is a lack of early successional habitat – or young trees – across the landscape.

The number one reason: Decades of fire suppression, Sutton said.

The Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network, which the Nature Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service launched in 2007 as a joint project, has worked to assemble wildlife managers, ecologists and forest managers from agencies and organizations that were interested in a better grasp of how both wild and managed fires alter the landscape.

“With the drought and the range of the fires, this has been an exceptional year,” Sutton said.

“In some places we’re resetting the clock of the forest to age zero. That can be catastrophic in places that are potential hotbeds for non-native species, but can also be valuable to wildlife and to native habitats that form in places that we’ve had difficulty managing.”

Shock to the ecosystem

Gary Kauffman, a forest botanist with the USFS is among a cadre of experts the Forest Service has deployed in Burned Area Emergency Response (BARE) teams. Assembled specialists are sent to analyze post-fire condition of burned watersheds and plan emergency stabilization treatments. Their goal is to look at any special efforts needed to protect forest health and water quality.

“This type of fire doesn’t happen very often,” Kauffman said, adding that it could take a couple of years to see most of the effects.

From a scientific point-of-view, ecologists consider fires an important disturbance in the natural cycle of “succession” – the process of plants and animals changing after a disturbance. A shock can be as small as fallen tree or as wide sweeping as an invasive pest like the pine beetle or a forest fire. In either case, said Sutton, those upheavals are vital in creating a forest with mixed aged forests and habitats that accommodate a range of wildlife and plants.

The regeneration process is beneficial for a range of plants and animals. For instance, young forests provide food and cover for migratory songbirds and habitat for game such as turkey.

But things grow fast in Western North Carolina relative to other ecosystems. That means forest managers have to think quick to help native species thrive and keep unwanted pests from taking root.

In the wake of intense fires in 2013 in the Linville Gorge the non-native princess tree sprouted up in deeply scorched areas. Just one tree can generate up to 20 million seeds per year and can grow up to 10 feet in a single season.

Kauffman said the agency struggled to address the regeneration of the princess trees because of the extremely steep terrain and the Linville Gorge’s designation as a wilderness area which can restrict some of the rehabilitation strategies that can be deployed.

Fighting fire with …

One strategy could be managed fire – a tactic that land managers haven’t always favored.

In 1915 the North Carolina General Assembly authorized the first state fire wardens to fight fires and clear brush along rail lines to keep sparks at bay and to protect forests that were prized for their timber value. In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service developed a so-called “10 a.m. policy” which mandated fires be snuffed by the next morning.

However, research in the 1960s and 1970s led to a shift in Forest Service policy to a “let-burn” policy.

While forest managers now generally view fires as vital to the health of a forest, state forest managers are still mandated to suppress wildfires to protect people and property. It’s when the flames cross onto the 1.1 million acres of national forest that forest firefighters have more options to take charge and, if possible, control and manage those wildfires to prevent damage and capture some of the ecological dividends.

Sutton and Kauffman said there is a silver lining in the recent fires. For example, the fires may help contain rhododendron and mountain laurel that spread in the absence of fire from riparian areas in which they belong to slopes and ridges where they provide fuel for fires.

Still, agencies prefer to use controlled burns, rather than wildfire, as a tool to improve the health of a forest. Before a controlled burn, fire experts take months to plan and consider a wide range of factors to minimize the impact of smoke and the health and safety of people and property nearby.

Wildfires, of course, have no regard for timing, people, structures, terrain or weather forecasts. And, among the Fire Learning Network’s conclusions is that a lack of fire has led to increased fuel loads that leave forests and people more vulnerable to catastrophic fire.

Rethinking long-term efforts

“The cost of fighting wildfires is astronomical,” Sutton said. “The recent fires have been really hard to watch personally and my thoughts are with families who lost lives and resources. There’s no good spin to put on that.”

Damage from fires can be seen Dec. 12, 2016, along Buck Creek near Marion came from the Clear Creek fire that struck McDowell County in November. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Damage from fires can be seen Dec. 12, 2016, along Buck Creek near Marion came from the Clear Creek fire that struck McDowell County in November. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

The wide range of the fires may affect how public land managers address fire in the future. Michelle Aldridge of the USFS said forest planners will reconsider fire in the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Plan revision process that is slated to be finalized in 2017. A draft plan and a draft environmental impact statement are expected to be released in the spring.

“We are going to continue the plan development, integrating our best scientific information about current conditions,” said Aldridge in an e-mail to CPP. “We’ll take another look at the forest-wide direction for fire and make sure that section has everything we need as we move ahead.”

Ultimately, the ecological impact – both good and bad – of the fires won’t be clear for months or even years to come.

“It’s too early to really understand what’s going to happen,” Kauffman said, though he’s hopeful.

“We need to look at the fires as an opportunity,” he said. “There is benefit and potential risk. When you burn you are trying to make change, but some species benefit and some don’t.”

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