Conservancy launches southeast coastal plain controlled burn season

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By Sam Hickman

 For many fire specialists in the Brunswick County region, there are five seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, and controlled burn season.

Controlled burn season has begun, and it’s going on right in our backyard.

In early January, The Nature Conservancy launched its 2014 controlled burn season with a successful 30-acre burn at its Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County. The conservancy hopes to burn 2,500 acres in Brunswick, Pender and Bladen counties thorough the end of March. The conservancy burn crew will also assist partners in burns on non-conservancy lands.

“We’ve got a great burn crew,” said Angie Carl, fire specialist and land steward with The Nature Conservancy. “We’re ready to go and hope the weather gives us a fantastic year. Burning is great for the plants and animals; it also benefits people (by) reducing the likelihood of wildfires.”

Carl said it’s absolutely necessary for the conservancy to conduct these burns.

“We want to reduce fuels for safety and environmental reasons. We’d lose all the rare plants that make the Green Swamp pretty spectacular,” Carl said. “This will provide a functioning ecosystem. This is absolutely necessary for all those plants to survive and all those animals to live in the ecosystem. It’s essential that we maintain that. By burning we’re also reducing fuels. If there are wildfires, it would certainly slow those down.”

Carl said there are no scheduled burns because it’s all weather dependent.

Much of the coastal plain contains plants and animals that need regular fire to thrive. Fire was once common across the area. In ancient times, burns caused by lightning strikes were common. In later times, those natural fires were augmented by Native Americans who understood the need for fire, but in the last century, the emphasis was on fire suppression, according to a release from the N.C. Conservancy.

Without routine fire, plants such as longleaf pine, Venus flytraps and native orchids — and the number of animals living in the forest — declined. Fuel load also built up in the forest, leading to hard-to-control wildfires that threatened nearby communities, said Carl, who has served as a fire specialist in North Carolina’s Southeast Coastal Plain since 2004.

The Nature Conservancy uses fire as part of its restoration work across the area as do many of its partners including the military, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Forest Service, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation and Brunswick County’s Orton Plantation.

In 2013, the conservancy burned 2,000 acres on its preserves and assisted with another 9,000 on partner lands in the southeast coastal plain.

Fire has long been a vital cog in the coastal plain ecosystem, Carl said. By clearing dense vegetation from ground areas, fire allows low-growing grasses, orchids, shrubs and the region's plethora of carnivorous plants, including the Venus flytrap, to thrive.

Some trees, such as longleaf pines, also require fire to reduce competition from faster-growing flora, while pond pines and wiregrass need fire to start the germination of their seeds, Carl said.

But man has largely interrupted this process along the coast by limiting wildfires in many areas. The result is unhealthy ecosystems choking on thick vegetation, a situation that can turn dangerous when fire returns to forests filled with decades of shrubs, grasses and fallen trees.

Several federal and state agencies also regularly conduct controlled burns during the winter fire season, which runs roughly through March, to help maintain the health of their forests and reduce the risk of a wildfire down the road.

The conservancy will extend its controlled burn window in 2014. In past years, the burn teams have only worked from January through March. Thanks to a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, another crew will burn from May through August.


Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or shickman@brunswickbeacon.com.