A Healthy Forest Is a Burned One

Smoke from a fire in the Croatan National Forest looms over the White Oak River. The smoke was an inconvenience to most, but the fire means survival for the longleaf pine forest. Photo: Sam Bland

By Brad Rich and Frank Tursi

A version of this story first appeared in the Tideland News

SWANSBORO — For a longleaf pine forest like the Croatan National Forest, fire is the common cure for illness. Fire is to the longleaf forest what rain is to a rainforest and tides are to a salt marsh. Take away fire and the longleaf forest will perish.

So while smoke from the Croatan wildfire has caused problems in the area and fighting the fire has been expensive, biologists are far from unhappy about the effects.

In fact, Rachelle Powell, the forest biologist, said the fire is happening in a “wilderness” area that officials were in the process of seeking permission to burn.

The fire started on June 14 in a permitted “prescribed burn” area, which is burned every two or three years, Powell said. But it jumped into the wilderness area, pushed by stronger than expected winds on June 17, and has now blackened more than 21,000 acres.

Ideally, Powell said, the National Forest Service would like to burn even wilderness areas every few years, both to reduce wildfire fuel and for the ecological benefits, but that’s prohibited by Congress.

“We’ve been working on changing that, but it’s a long process and we want to make sure we do it right when we can do it,” Powell said.

Fire and Longleafs

Historically, frequent, yet low-intensity fires started by lightning strikes burned every three to 10 years to maintain the Southern longleaf forest. Native Americans and then European settlers also set fires to flush game and clear land. Thus molded, the longleaf forest is made up of plants and animals that are tolerant of and dependent on fire. Biologists like Powell call it a “fire climax community.”

“Almost the whole forest is a fire-dependent ecology,” she said. “People don’t realize it, but each year we successfully burn thousands of acres. It’s necessary.”

Burning promotes seed germination, flowering, or re-sprouting of fire-adapted native plants and generally improves wildlife habitat. Regular burns improve the quality and quantity of plants, nuts and fruit for wildlife. New shrub, herb and grass sprouts capture the quick flush of nutrients into the soil after a fire and are often more nutritious and palatable than older plants. Insects, food for many animals, also increase rapidly after most fires. Burning also helps to control pests, such as bark beetles, and diseases on seedlings.

Flames consume other trees that would out-compete longleaf pines. Photo: Sam Bland

No inhabitant of the forest is more immune to the scorching effects of fire and more dependent on it for survival than the stately longleaf. The tree’s thick bark and copious resin protect it from all but the hottest fires. The seedlings spend much of their energy in their first few years growing a deep taproot to better survive a fire. They look more like bushy candles at this stage, their branches a wiry tangle of long needles that protect the terminal bud from fire.

It can take a longleaf 150 years to reach full height. Because they don’t grow very fast, young pines would soon find themselves in the shade of other, faster-growing trees. Denied of sunlight, the seedlings would be doomed. Those other trees, though, must eventually face the flames. Most will be consumed, and the longleaf forest will thus go on.

The Land of the Longleaf

A canopy of longleaf and the park-like wiregrass savannah below it once stretched from Raleigh to the coast. The pine forest then covered maybe as much as 60 million acres of the Southeast coastal plain.

The tree was such a defining characteristic of the state that it got top billing in the official state toast:

Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine
The summer land were the sun doth shine..

New land uses, starting in the late 1800s, triggered changes to the great longleaf forest of the Southeast. Large swaths of forest were cleared for farm fields and pastures, for roads and highway interchanges, for subdivisions and strip malls. The forest became fragmented as we began heeding Smokey’s advice to put out all forest fires.

Experts estimate that about 2 percent remains of the great Southern longleaf forest. That remnant needs fire to survive. Forest managers use these “prescribed burn” to mimic a natural fire over a small area.

The Croatan fire is in region of the forest that hasn’t burned in at least 15 years, so lots of fuel – undergrowth and vegetative debris – has built up. That last wildfire in the area, Powell said, was almost exactly the same size as this one, maybe even slightly larger.

“I’m not an expert, but dendrologists … will tell you that from looking (at tree rings) over 300 years – since settlement – you’ll see that it generally happens every three years or so, sometimes up to 10 years,” Powell said. “In this case – 15 years, at least – I guess we just were lucky.”

The Greening of the Croatan

Some of the grasses and understory vegetation will be back – not noticeably different than before – within a week after the fire is out, Powell said. Other vegetation will take longer to come back, but it will return.

If the dry weather continues, the process might be somewhat slower than would normally be expected, she said, but a year from now, no one is likely to see any difference, except for scars on the trees.

“The plants in the forest have evolved over time to this ecology,” Powell said. “The fire is healthy for the forest.”

The fire, she added, has had no negative effect on animals within the forest. “We haven’t seen one dead animal,” Powell said. “These animals – bears and deer and others– are also well-adapted to fire-dependent ecology. When they smell smoke or see flames, they just move away for a while but come right back.”

This story is provided courtesy of the Tideland News, a weekly newspaper in Swansboro. Coastal Review Online is partnering with the Tideland News to provide readers with more stories of coastal interest. 


About the Author

Sam Bland

Sam Bland spent much of his life out in the field as as a park ranger and park superintendent at the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. Most of his 30 years with the division was spent at Hammocks Beach State Park near Swansboro where Sam specialized in resource management and environmental education. He also worked from 2009-18 for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, where he helped develop programs at the education center on Jones Island in the White Oak River. He is also an accomplished photographer.