After the Fire, How Does a Forest Grow?

By Mark Washburn for the Charlotte Observer

LAKE LURE, NC – First off, Bambi is just fine.

Woodland critters such as deer and bear packed up and left imperiled wildfire areas far more cooperatively than did their human neighbors, who in some cases had to be run off by the cops with evacuation orders.

Second off, the 7,100 acres scorched by the wildfire at Lake Lure – like most of the other timberland burning in mountainous western North Carolina – will likely spring back to life next year with renewed vigor.

Fire photo

This fire, in Massachusetts, is a controlled burn used to reduce flammable materials on the ground and create conditions leading to regrowth of healthy young forest habitat. Recent fires in N.C. and Tenn. were difficult to control, yet trees will recover and wildlife will benefit./Tim Simmons photo

Wildfires can be enormously destructive, but these appear to have been moderate, merely hitting the reset button on the life cycle of mountain timberlands.

And despite their menacing displays – one mountainside near Lake Lure looked to be coated by lava at the height of this month’s fire – they can have beneficial long-term impacts.

It will be spring before the damage can be fully assessed for what is called the Party Rock Fire, which started November 5 on the rocky ledge by that name above Chimney Rock village.

But experts say it appears that even in burn areas, many trees were spared because the fire fed mainly on the dry, thick detritus on the forest floor, then moved on.

It was unlike Western wildfires that can burn so hot they sterilize the soil, leaving it bare for years.

“It was hot but not too hot,” said Shane Hardee of the North Carolina Forest Service, who was one of two branch directors in command of an army of foresters during the two-week wildfire. Flames stood about three feet high as they moved through the forest, only rarely climbing trees to the canopy of dead, autumn leaves, occasionally exploding them like a tiki-torch.

It had been years since the forest floor had been swept by nature, and the result of such housekeeping is usually positive.

Lessons from Linville

Recent fall wildfires in Linville Gorge killed few trees and opened new undergrowth by burning away ground shrubs, thus benefiting wildlife, said Margit Bucher, fire manager for The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina chapter.

But the fires didn’t occur under a severe drought like the one in effect now, so she says she’s cautious about forecasts.

“It is a little early to predict how many trees will die from a fire, that is burning during severe drought in a forest that is adapted to frequent fires but has not experienced fires for many decades,” she said.

Still, new shoots of vegetation will appear from the newly-cleared ground in the spring, which wildlife – particularly deer – consider a prime treat. Fire also returns nutrients to the soil, completing nature’s life cycle, said Brian Haines of the N.C. Forest Service.

Trees Resilient

Pine, hickory and oak trees in the forest are fire resistant and expected to largely survive in areas where the fire kept moving. Poplar trees, with thin bark, are in more jeopardy.

Image

Among the many birds that will benefit from new young forest growing in the wake of recent Appalachian wildfires is the eastern towhee./Bill Thompson, USFWS

All the trees experienced some stress from the fire, and if adequate rainfall doesn’t come, they are expected to show higher mortality rates over the next few years.

After spring grasses return, other early successional tree species are expected to start growing such as pine, yellow poplar, red maple, mountain laurel and rhododendron.

Then, over the years, will come oak, black cherry and sugar maple, though that could take up to a century, said Cabe Speary, a fire environment forester with the N.C. Forest Service.

“Fire generally does not burn with the same intensity all over the landscape during a wildfire,” Speary said. “After the burn, a mosaic pattern will develop.”

A few areas can be swept clean, but other areas bounce back quickly.

“Within seven to 10 years,” said Speary, “the untrained eye will not be able to tell the area was ever disturbed.”

One problem expected in the recovery is the high number of invasive species introduced into the Lake Lure area, largely for landscaping. Among them: tree-of-heaven, princess tree, Asian bittersweet, Japanese silver grass.

“These invasive species like disturbances such as fire creating bare soil and could dominate burned areas and possibly outcompete natural species” warned Bucher of The Nature Conservancy. “Land managers may need to intervene if they want to maintain pine and oak forests.”

End of the Fires

It has been 50 days since significant rainfall in western Northern Carolina. If the drought does not break, wildfire season could last until March, foresters say.

So parched are the highlands, a wildfire that popped up recently in Polk County was blamed on a truck dragging a chain, which set off sparks igniting three brush fires along Interstate 26.

New wildfires, mostly small, are popping up almost daily. One in Watauga County is suspected to have been the result of arson, but most are caused by human carelessness.

Arson is the second-leading cause of wildfires in North Carolina over the past decade, the N.C. Forest Service says.

From 2005 through 2014, North Carolina had 45,609 wildfires, of which 8,461, or 19 percent, were intentionally started. Careless burning of debris is the state’s No. 1 cause of wildland fires.

Until the rains return, the fragile highlands will have to remain under alert.

“It only takes one spark,” said Andy Lyon of the joint fire command at Lake Lure, “and you’re doing it again.”

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