Using 'controlled burns' to help forests
SPRING LAKE, N.C. — Located in the Sandhills of North Carolina, Carver’s Creek State Park is home to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, wiregrass and the longleaf pine. Because the park contains such an ecosystem is precisely why the it's being set on fire.
Carvers Creek State Park opened to the public in 2013. Visitors can hike along sandy trails, take in the history of previous owners like the Rockefellers or catch a glimpse of native wildlife. But visitors can’t see the entire park. North Carolina State Parks invited us into an area not yet open to the public to see park staff set ablaze the forest underbrush—what they call a “controlled burn." To reach the burn site, park staff make their way down a long, bumpy road. Park Ranger Colleen Bowers is leading the carefully planned fire, which will manage the forest ecology and prevent future wildfires.
Ranger Bowers briefs her team from Carvers Creek and other State Parks units.
“Alright, thank you guys all for coming out and burning with us today,” she says. “We are burning Sandhills unit one. It is 13 acres. I know this is kind of a small unit for us…”
Controlled burns can sometimes char hundreds of acres. In 2016, State Parks set prescribed fires in nearly one-third of the park, but today just 13 acres will be set afire.
Monitoring the flames and 'going full ops'
The crew begins the burn by igniting a test fire using what’s called a drip torch. The test fire tells Ranger Bowers about the fire’s intensity, smoke characteristics and wind direction. If the fire looks like it won’t accomplish her goals, Bowers will call off the burn.
“Test fire complete—going full ops,” says Bowers. The crew then fans out creating lines of fire while monitoring the flames and the weather. “Jimmy, just a heads up,” says Bowers, “we’re getting really shifty winds out here. We’re getting some south, some southeast, some southwest.”
Thriving with Fire
The scene may look like destruction, but State Parks biologist Jimmy Dodson says it’s the opposite.
“The Sandhills of North Carolina, from a natural community standpoint—essentially most of the plants and animals here thrive with fire,” he says. “They evolved with fire over time.”
Fellow biologist and crew member Jon Blanchard says there’s a lot of science behind today’s burn.
“And so, we're burning it to restore the ground cover,” he says. “When you burn the ground cover off, burn all the vegetation off, which acts like a mulch, it frees up the seed and the grasses that are in the soil to sprout and then hopefully get a natural community back where there used to be just pine straw.”
Burning the pine straw also cuts down the intensity of future wildfires.
“By reducing the fuel you're literally just taking away the fuel for the next fire,” says Blanchard. “Give 'em a haircut. It's not going to kill them, but it moves them back to ground level so that they are part of the ground cover as opposed to being a dominant part of the forest.” Blanchard speaks from years of experience with fires like this.
“The biggest danger from wildfire or from prescribed fires like we're doing today is not from people getting burned,” he says. “We're very careful about doing that, but there are other threats out there that actually pose a greater danger. Insects, ticks, reptiles, rattlesnakes, holes, stump holes, things that you trip on, trees falling—that sort of thing, are probably something we need to pay more attention to than the fires as far as danger goes.”
Helping the endangered woodpecker
But benefits of the fire outweigh the risks. Among the animals helped is the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. To make their nests, the woodpeckers seek longleaf pines. Bowers points to one of the longleaf pines.
“You can see there are holes in the trees and this white stuff that's kind of coming down; that's the resin. So they continuously poke at the tree to make the sap flow and it makes the outside sticky, so snakes and things can't climb up into their hole and eat their babies,” she says. To protect the birds, foresters mark the endangered woodpeckers' trees with white or silver bands. The same sap that the woodpeckers rely on to guard their homes is flammable. So, the burn crew has to take care.
“They'll come up here, they'll take their drip torch and they'll run the rings around each of these and then come back out,” says Bowers. “So, it's going to keep the tree from catching fire.” As fire consumes brush and debris on the forest floor, it leaves a smoking black layer of earth that can linger for days. Rangers come back daily to check for hot spots.
When this controlled burn dies out, the forest will be better able to resist wildfires that threaten human lives, homes and infrastructure. Plus, native plants and animals—like the red-cockaded woodpecker—will thrive.