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One of the things that amazed me when I first came to Brunswick County as a permanent resident was the number of controlled fires that are created in our area. So, I decided to find out what these fires are all about.
The Nature Conservancy owns or manages more than 30,000 acres in Pender, Brunswick and Columbus counties. Much of that property is fire-dependent; the plants that live there need regular fire to survive and thrive. That’s why The Nature Conservancy will conduct controlled burns through March. Areas to be burned include parts of the Green Swamp and Boiling Spring Lakes.
“Many ecosystems need regular fire,” said Dan Ryan, the conservancy’s southeast coastal plain project director. “Fire keeps longleaf pine stands healthy and ensures the survival of a myriad of wonderful plants. Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, orchids and other plants are dependent on fire. Controlled burns also protect local communities; they reduce the chances of big out-of-control wildfires that threaten people.”
Without prescribed burning, the longleaf pines in Boiling Spring Lakes and across the region would disappear. So, too, would the red-cockaded woodpeckers that depend on the pine for habitat and a host of other plants that need fire to thrive and survive.
The Nature Conservancy has an extensive fire program, staffed with experts who know and understand fire. Controlled burn participants receive extensive training to ensure they are careful to protect surrounding communities, themselves and the land they are working to restore. All controlled burns are conducted under the guidance of a fire boss, who has years of experience and training.
Burns are carefully planned. Fire experts do a great deal of work before the first match is lit. First, they create a burn plan, which includes smoke and fire control, allowable weather, equipment and personnel needs. The plan also details how the ecosystem will benefit from fire. Preparation for a controlled burn also includes creating firebreaks, which are wide corridors of cleared vegetation around the burn area. Firebreaks ensure that fire doesn’t leave the burn area.
Assuming that you don’t want to burn down your pine, cedar and oak trees, but rather revitalize the plants growing beneath and adjacent to them, it is necessary to control the fire intensity. When burning near (or under) trees, you need to pay special attention to the heat, flame heights and flying embers created by your prescribed fire. There are several ways to influence that fire intensity to prevent negative impacts to trees, and all of them can be addressed through careful planning.
First, if it’s possible, plan to burn the site on a day when the wind direction will blow the fire away from the trees. Second, plan your fire for days with a combination of low temperatures, high relative humidity, and low wind speed to reduce fire intensity. Third, the way the fire is lit can play a large role. Allowing the fire to back into the wind (instead of running with the wind) in the area near or under the trees will keep the heat and flame heights low.
Of course, this all assumes you can achieve the objective for the burn with that lower-intensity fire. The complicated process of achieving multiple objectives for a prescribed fire while accounting for the impact of the fire and smoke on nearby lands is why Conservancy fire staff spend so much time at training courses.
During the 2009 controlled burn season, the Conservancy burned 3,000 acres in southeastern North Carolina, which was a record year. Well, I learned a lot from my research and I hope I helped you better understand the need for fire.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.