Jan. 10, 2013. Nearly 500 people have a signed a petition created by Save Linville Gorge Wilderness, a coalition of nearby landowners that opposes the potential prescribed burn of more than 16,500 acres in and around the gorge two to three times in the next 10 years.
The Linville Gorge Wilderness Prescribed Burn Project is apart of the U.S. Forest Service’s 10-year Grandfather Restoration Project, which is a collaboration between the forest service and numerous environmental agencies including Wild South and Western North Carolina Alliance to restore fire-adapted forests and protect native plants from invasive species.
Stevin Westcott, the public affairs officer for National Forests in North Carolina, said the proposed burn project has two primary goals.
He said the project promotes restoration and will help restore two threatened species, the mountain golden heather and Heller’s blazing star and help restore or regenerate “key species” in the area such as the shortleaf pine, pitch pine and table mountain pine. The table mountain pine, for example, requires very high heat to open the cones and release seeds.
The second primary goal of the proposed burn project, Westcott said, is to reduce woody debris to reduce risks of high-intensity wildfires that could adversely affect nearby landowners.
Before the 20th century, it’s estimated that the Linville Gorge burned every five to ten years from lightning, and decades of fire suppression have resulted in “dangerously high-fuel loads that can increase wildfire intensity” threatening the lives of firefighters and nearby residents, according to a May letter from the U.S. Forest Service.
Since 2000, 20,000 acres of the gorge have been burned in four separate fires that were caused by an abandoned campfire, a house fire, a “human-caused” event and another by lightning, according to a document from Westcott. The proposed burn area would include the 11,786-acre Linville Gorge Wilderness Area and 4,800 surrounding acres in the Pisgah National Forest.
Property owners in Gingercake Acres at Jonas Ridge have been vocal in their strong opposition to the potential prescribed burns that they feel is a violation to the 1964 Wilderness Act; will repel outdoor enthusiasts; turn the gorge into a black hole; and burn out-of-control onto their property and into their homes.
Sally James lives in the Gingercake Acres community and signed and commented on the petition at www.change.org.
“Abutting the wilderness area, our community of Gingercake Acres stands to lose much in the way of value and quality of life. Homes and belongings could potentially be destroyed as well. But also there could be a disastrous impact on its water system as our tank and several wells are at risk for either inordinate drawdown or even destruction should the burn get out of control,” James wrote.
She continued, “There is real concern for any prescribed burn getting out of control, but in Linville Gorge the concern heightens with its 1,400-foot depth, its deep side cuts, and the involvement of sudden, shifting and high winds. As witness to its inaccessibility, in the early 20th century, with logging at its height, the gorge’s 10,000 acres of virgin forest were spared due to the ruggedness of the terrain.”
Westcott said he understood about the concerns of the people. However, he said that one of the goals of burn project is to prevent high-intensity wildfires from getting out of control and smoldering the Gingercake Acres community and other nearby neighborhoods.
“I think it is better to have a managed fire as opposed to allowing nature take its course and allowing an unmanaged out-of-control wildfire burn homes,” Westcott said. “The nice thing about prescribed burns is that we are able to set up fire lines and put in contingencies in the event that some embers blow into another part of the gorge.”
He said the U.S. Forest Service follows a “highly scientific, very detailed and very involved 30-page plan” for prescribed burns.
“It’s not just a matter of lighting fire to the land,” Westcott said, adding that the conditions must also be conducive for a safe, prescribed burn.
He mentioned that a prescribed fire that escapes happens less than one percent of the time.
“There’s a much greater damage of wildfires,” Westcott said, adding that any aesthetic issues with the burning will be resolved in five to six months after the regeneration process starts and things begin to green again.
He also added that the project has only been proposed so far.
“It’s very possible that what the project looks like is very different from what is currently proposed,” Westcott said. “That’s important for folks to realize.”
The deadline for public comment on this proposed burning was initially set for Jan. 15. However that date has been pushed back. The U.S. Forest Service is now encouraging folks to submit comments by Jan. 31.
Comments can be sent to: [email protected].
Learn more about the proposed project at: www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs-usda-pop.php/?project=37966.