Thriving on Fire: Burns Bring Life to the Pines
Brad Charles leaned on the wooden split-rail fence in the backyard of his home on Mile Away Lane watching flames consume the wire grass and lap at the pine trees just a few feet away. As he watched the flames flicker and the smoke waft through the trees, he reminisced.
"It's been a number of years since we did it this close," Charles said as he watched the fire, which is part of a prescribed burn conducted on Walthour-Moss Foundation land.
Charles has lived in his home for more than a decade, but each time he drives down Youngs Road and a controlled burn is going on, a tinge of fear strikes him.
"That anxiety hits me," he said. "Did I leave the stove on? Did I leave the fireplace running?"
Prescribed - or controlled - burning is a regular practice around here, especially this time of year before warmer temperatures and stronger winds kick in. The burns help protect and promote the overall health of North Carolina ecosystems.
But conducting a burn is more complicated than just picking a site, selecting a day and then lighting a match.
"There is a complexity to it," said Moore County forest ranger Billie Lewis. "It is a very involved process."
Prescribed burns reduce the buildup of vegetation that could fuel a wildfire. In addition, many plants and animals need fire to thrive. Prescribed burns can reduce competition among plants, release seeds, and add nutrients to benefit species.
Prescribed burning also promotes beneficial plant species that help attract wildlife and control disease, understory trees and fire-resistant species.
Without regular orderly burning, vegetation buildup can lead to large uncontrolled fires that endanger people and property. Dense undergrowth that can thrive without regular burning can choke out other species and make walking through natural forests more difficult.
And fire is a more environmentally compatible management tool than herbicides or heavy machinery.
The North Carolina Forestry Service regulates prescribed burns, and they are conducted by either county forest rangers or by state-approved contractors. Lewis said there are about a dozen contractors certified to conduct the burns registered with his office. Of those, five or six regularly do burns in the area.
The longleaf pine ecosystem in Moore County "thrives on fire," Lewis said. "They need fire to be healthy and to grow."
In Moore County, somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 acres of land are involved in controlled burns. Many of these burns are conducted in the first three months of the year or in the late spring and summer. The burns done at this time of the year reduce fuel or unwanted vegetation in the ecosystem.
Moore County's fire season is March, April and May, so in those months controlled burns can be limited, sometimes severely, by conditions.
Before any prescribed burning can take place, the forestry service must be notified and a burning permit must be obtained.
Several precautions are taken to preserve public safety. First, a burn plan is required. That plan describes the objectives and includes plans for fire and smoke control as well as allowable weather and personnel needs. It also includes plans on what to look ahead for and what to do if conditions change.
"If we go against the burn plan, it's like driving without a seat belt," said Lewis.
Weather conditions, Lewis added, are the biggest factor as to whether or not a controlled burn can take place.
'Weather dictates what we burn and when we burn, and wind plays a major role," he said.
Prescribed burns can be planned out well ahead of time and a preferred date selected, but the decision on whether to burn or not will be determined on the morning of the burn, which can lead to plenty of delays if conditions are not right.
"I have a tract of about 130 acres out on Roberts Road that I have been waiting to burn for three weeks," Lewis said Thursday. He planned to conduct the prescribed burn there on Friday, weather permitting.
Before any burn is conducted, firebreak corridors of cleared vegetation are created around the burn area. According to the North Carolina Prescribed Burn Council, the best firebreaks expose bare soil and are free from burnable materials, ensuring that fire doesn't leave the burn site.
Lewis said burns are commonly conducted in the eastern part of Moore County. Locations like Fort Bragg, The Walthour-Moss Foundation outside Southern Pines, and Rassie Wicker Park in Pinehurst are just a few of the areas where prescribed burns are regularly done.
The Walthour-Moss Foundation sits on 4,000 acres just outside Southern Pines. Landon Russell, executive director of the foundation, said the foundation has a three-year burn plan and attempts to conduct prescribed burns each year.
"We try to burn a quarter of it (foundation acreage) each year, but it is really all weather dependent," Russell said.
Last year the foundation burned about 1,100 acres. The prior year it was only about 550.
The foundation land is divided into eight burn blocks, which are predominantly burned in the winter months. There are some areas that are also burned in the summer. Multiple sites can be burned at the same time.
Preparing to burn can often take much longer than the actual event.
Russell said she has seen it take seven hours for crews to prepare one area for a burn. Less than two weeks ago the foundation burned 180 acres in the span of less than three hours.
"Most of the fire that goes through here is six inches tall, stays low to the ground and burns quickly," Russell said.
One of the key challenges about conducting controlled burns on foundation land is protecting the habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally protected species, that lives in trees there.
Friday, before the burn, crews raked debris from around nearly 40 trees that are homes to the protected species. Raking keeps the flames away from sap that could drip to the ground and accidentally cause the trees to burn.
Rassie Wicker Park has far less acreage than the Walthour-Moss Foundation or Fort Bragg, which can burn tens of thousands of acres a year, but it also has unique challenges because it is in the heart of a residential area.
"The big thing for us is controlling the smoke," said Kevin Brewer, park supervisor for the village of Pinehurst. "We have to keep the smoke away from the hospital."
FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital is less than a half mile from the park.
On Friday, Pinehurst planned a prescribed burn in approximately 12 acres of the park in the area bounded by Rassie Wicker Drive and Graham and McCaskill roads.
Brewer said in the past he has received occasional complaints and most all of those are about smoke, caused by shifting winds after the burn is under way.
"Once you light that fire, it's too late if the winds shift,' Brewer said. 'You have to finish. You can't just stop halfway through.'
Brewer said last year a man living in the neighborhood of the prescribed burn asked if the crew could come over to his yard and do the same thing.
John Ward works for Applied Services and Information Systems, the firm conducting the prescribed burn in Pinehurst. He said his firm does about 25 such burns a year.
One of the key things that must be done before a burn takes place is proper notification of the local fire departments and the 911 operators, Ward said.
"Everybody's got a cellphone these days, and everybody wants to call in a fire, especially if they see smoke,' Ward said. "By notifying the dispatchers of what we are doing, it alleviates the problem of them calling out anybody unnecessarily."
Friday morning, as Brad Charles leaned on his fence and watched, Tim McDonald and his brothers, Al and Ralph, of Muddy Creek Management, Carthage, set fires with silver hand-held trip torches.
Flames leapt, scorching the ground and smoke climbed through the trees.
It was the culmination of weeks and months of preparation to ready nearly 200 acres to be burned.
Despite the preparation and years of experience, McDonald still gets nervous on burn days.
"There is always a thing in the back of your mind it may not be a good day," McDonald said. "I've had bad days where you fight fire all day because conditions changed and the fire jumped the line."
This day, however, was not one of those days.
"It's a good day," Tim McDonald said. "Knock on wood."
Contact Tom Embrey at (910) 693-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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