Rocky Broad River

Rocky Broad River

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fire On the Mountain: Blessing or Curse?

Over the last week, I've sat helplessly in my office and at Town Hall, watching as one of my favorite mountains burns.  It's hard to describe the feelings as you try to imagine why anyone would be so careless as to light a campfire, toss a cigarette, or dare I say intentionally set a fire, knowing that conditions for fire are at their highest.  The fact is we don't know the actual cause of the fire or when exactly it will end.  We do know that it was started by humans and not by a natural ignition source such as lightning.  My heart goes out to all the people who have been evacuated from their homes, their lives placed in limbo as they wait to see whether their home will still be standing.  I can't imagine what you are going through.  My heart equally goes out to the men and women who are working this fire, trying to bring under control this force of nature that seems so unwilling to be abated.  A huge heartfelt thank you goes out to them and all the volunteers who are working so tirelessly to support the firefighters as they work.  The Hickory Nut Gorge communities always come together when it matters.

The afternoon of November 10, fire burns below the south-facing cliffs of  Rumbling Bald.
A NC Forest Service helicoptor taking water to the fire.
The point of my post moving forward is not to diminish any aspect of what our firefighters are doing fighting this fire or to give any kind of kudos to the starters of this fire, but rather to talk about the importance of fire within the natural world and why the Party Rock Fire, despite the costs, may be the best thing that could have happened to the mountain in a long time.  As a quick disclaimer, I am not a fire ecologist, so there are many aspects of fire ecology that you will not find in this post.  I am merely trying to paint a picture of something good, even though appearances might suggest otherwise.  If I say something that is not correct, I would ask that my professional colleagues weigh-in and help with the educational process.

Consider that it has been 100 years since Hickory Nut Gorge has experienced such a super disaster.  The last super disaster was the Great Flood of 1916.  How ironic that 100-years later we would be seeing another great disaster that would be due to the lack of water rather than an overabundance.  But is this fire truly a disaster in an ecological sense?  On the surface it appears so given the huge deployment of resources, manpower, and cost, without such we would likely see the loss of homes and lives.  That would truly be a disaster in terms of human impact.  The 1916 flood was certainly a disaster as both homes and lives were lost.  But was the flood a disaster in an ecological sense? An ecological disaster is something that occurs that changes the overall makeup of the affected ecological community.  An example might be the decimation of the bat population by white nose syndrome.  The overall impacts of an introduced fungus have shown to be widespread and hard-hitting, affecting more than one species and causing mass die-off.  Loss of bats has a trickle down affect as other species are impacted by the loss; a true ecological disaster if it played out without some type of intervention.  I try to think of events such as floods and fires as giant reset buttons because a lot of times they tend to re-balance things.

Let's take a moment to look at the dynamics of a forest.  What is a forest?  If we think of a forest as trees we are only partly right.  A forest is a dynamic community of living things as well as specific abiotic factors that are necessary for biological function such as water, air, and soil (I'm being basic here).  Our regional forests are part of a specific biome known as the eastern deciduous forest or temperate deciduous forest, named for the dominance of deciduous tree species.  Within the larger biome, the forests are split into specific natural communities that are dominated by specific species.  For instance, a montane oak-hickory forest would be dominated by certain oak and hickory trees and would have other plant and animal species that would be ecologically connected to those specific tree species.  Each ecological community has specific abiotic factors that affect species makeup within that community such as aspect (direction a slope faces), proximity to water, soil depth, presence of rock, soil pH, dependence on disturbance, etc.

Oh, wait a minute!  Did you catch that last item?  Dependence on disturbance...what does that mean?
As I said earlier, a forest is a dynamic community.  Nothing about nature is constant.  It is always changing.  A natural community, with no corrective change mechanism would develop into a different natural community with time due to a process known as ecological succession.  Take for instance the American prairie (what's left of it anyway).  If you take away the primary disturbance mechanisms (fire, large grazers, etc.), the grasslands start to grow trees and within a few years the prairie grasses give way to shrubs and more trees until the original natural community becomes something totally different.  Disturbance is what maintains the species makeup of our natural communities and provides some semblance of equilibrium, albeit equilibrium does not truly exist in nature.

So what are the disturbance mechanisms?  Disturbance is caused by animals, particularly large grazing animals such as deer, elk, and bison.  Glaciers have caused large-scale disturbance on a global scale, moving species around and influencing species makeup in various ecosystems.  Floods move species around, provide important sediments to riparian zones, and provide saturation for species that like to "have their feet wet."  Fire is a disturbance mechanism that stabilizes certain communities by burning up intolerant species and providing the mechanism for germination in others.  Pine savannas, grasslands, and chaparral require fire in order to maintain their species diversity.  Wind in eastern forests blows over large trees in mature forests, providing light gaps to allow for regeneration.  Even humans are a disturbance mechanism.  Human activity, in the proper context, provides necessary disturbance that allows many species to thrive and often helps maintain the stability of natural communities.

Many ecologists believe that the historical fire regime in southern Appalachian forests is approximately every 30-35 years; basically a generation.  Fire history in the southern Appalachians, is not well-known but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these deciduous forests are meant to burn, based on the overall species makeup and their ability to tolerate fire.  Fires in the east are not like West Coast fires.  The fires don't burn as hot because they generally lack the volatile fuels that are found on the West Coast.  Generally, we have higher humidity and less constant wind, all important factors that dictate the intensity of a fire.  East Coast fires are generally ground fires, consuming leaf litter and woody debris, only becoming crown fires when there's something to get the fire into the canopy such as dead trees, vines, or hot burning shrubs such as rhododendrons and mountain laurel, but even then crown fires are extremely rare.  In a properly managed Appalachian forest, fire tolerant species such as oaks and hickories would dominate the canopy.  These species have thick bark that protects the vascular tissue of the tree from disease and damage, such as what might occur during a forest fire.  Certain species of pine are adapted to tolerate fire for the purposes of seed germination, so fire is important for regeneration and reproduction.

Fire, as it burns through decaying debris and leaf litter, contributes significant amounts of carbon back into the soil.  Carbon is a basic element that makes up all living things and that all living things require to live, so the quick input of carbon is extremely beneficial, resulting in rapid regeneration of disturbance-requiring species and enhancement of dominant species.

A low intensity fire removes significant litter and woody debris buildup that can restrict the growth of certain plant species, providing the disturbance those plants need to thrive.  Such fires also have the added benefit of removing fire-intolerant early successional and understory plants that would naturally compete with late successional and climax species that are meant to be keystone species for their particular natural communities.  Consider that red maples have become a dominant species in oak forests.  Maples are not fire tolerant.  Their bark is slick and thin and does not easily resist fire.  Maples are becoming dominant in traditional oak forests because of fire suppression and the way we manage forests with today's logging practices.  Maples grow considerably faster than oaks and can live a fairly long time, so they are actually competitors of oak trees, but they have considerably less value in terms of what they provide in the overall ecosystem so their place is meant to be successional and thus under a normal fire regime would theoretically suffer more loss than the more fire tolerant, dominant species.  As I write this, my brain is hearing the song, "The Trees" by Rush which oddly enough discusses conflict between oaks and maples, but I digress.

So, having said all that, let's take this particular fire in context and look at the pre-fire scenario.  It has been a very long time, more than 60 years (at least two human generations) since the Rumbling Bald Mountain area has experienced a fire of this magnitude.  Sure there have been occasional, small flare-ups that have burnt a few acres here and there, but nothing on the magnitude of hundreds or even thousands of acres.  The largest fires seen in the valley over the last ten years were the Double H Fire that burned part of Chimney Rock Mountain in 2008 and The Judes' Gap Fire that burned much of World's Edge and Cane Creek Mountain in 2011.  The former was started by a lightning strike under similar drought conditions that we have today.  The latter was the result of human idiocy, as is often the case.

Leading up to this fire, the forest had significant leaf litter and woody debris buildup.  Thanks to decomposition, there was not two generations' worth of litter and debris, but the buildup was still significant, compounded in some locations by the loss of one of our most important tree species, the eastern hemlock.  The skeletons of these once majestic trees have long been a concern for forest managers because of the fire hazard they create in a place that is long overdue for a significant fire event.  A lot of the fuel sources are Virginia pines that blew over in the the Blizzard of '93 or in other similar storm events.  Pine is full of resin that crystallizes when the trees die.  The crystallized turpentine is extremely volatile and long-burning, adding to the fire potential.  So we have the first necessary ingredient to set up the event...fuel.

Wildfires require perfect conditions to become monsters.  Every ten years or so, western North Carolina experiences moderate to severe drought.  If you don't believe me check the climatalogical record for our area.  These droughts vary in intensity, but they typically run in ten year cycles.  The current drought we find ourselves in may only be the beginning of things to come.  Climatologists believe that our area will be seeing more frequent drought with intermittent breaks of extreme rainfall, thanks to the global climate change phenomenon, and their prediction seems to be holding true.  Right now, we are approximately ten inches below our average annual rainfall and getting worse with each passing day.  This time of year is also when our humidity further decreases so all of the fuel in the forest is exceptionally dry.  The soil is dry.  Seepages and normally wet areas on the mountain are dry.  Let's face's a tinderbox out there!  Humidity is what keeps fuel moist and less apt to burn, affecting the level of volatility.  There we have our second ingredient (or lack thereof) humidity.

Fire can't burn without air.  Fires are intensified by high winds.  Wind pushes fire in lots of directions.  It blows hot embers and sparks around that can easily cross fire lines and start new fires.  A fire with no wind is much easier to control.  In Hickory Nut Gorge, wind is a problem, particularly this time of year as cold fronts begin to push across the continent in our direction, bringing with them increased northwest winds.  Because of the shape of the valley, winds tend to be funneled down the Gorge almost like a river of air.  Those winds when they come into contact with warmer air masses trapped in the valley floor tend to spin and eddy, creating a vortex effect that pushes air up the sides of the mountains.  Fire tends to run uphill anyway, so the updrafts created from wind tend to further drive the fire onto the higher peaks as well as quicken its pace on flat ground.  So our third ingredient is wind.

Another ingredient we can throw into the mix is terrain.  This fire is running through some very steep and rugged terrain, adding to the difficulty of gaining control.  It's this same terrain that made logging certain areas of the Gorge very difficult back in the years leading up to the Great 1916 Flood.  In those remote areas there's a lot of fuel, mostly consisting of really old trees, dead trees, windthrown trees, and large woody debris.  Those areas are going to burn hot because of the amount of biomass.  The terrain's steepness and aspect influence wind direction, providing avenues for moving fire to other parts of the forest such as through ravines and along bluff edges where plants tend to be a little more flammable.  Gorge fires are among the most difficult to fight, simply because of the terrain.

The fifth and last ingredient is ignition source.  If we look at the place where this fire started, it becomes really easy to see how this fire has gotten as big as it is.  Party Rock is a granite dome on the south-facing eastern end of Rumbling Bald.  I hate the name because it gives homage to a history of what I consider to be human stupidity.  Not trying to be self-righteous but I have never felt that partying is a very intelligent way to spend one's time.  The site is called Party Rock because sometime in the past, someone in a likely drunken stupor decided to paint PARTY, in big letters, on the rock face.  A stupid act in itself.  For many years people have been going up on the mountain to camp and "party," occasionally building campfires, throwing out cigarettes, and more or less trashing the place.  In more recent years, the property, which included the north side of Rumbling Bald Mountain, parts of the south side of the mountain, and Party Rock,  was acquired by the Nature Conservancy in an effort to protect its ecological value.  TNC then turned around and sold it to NC State Parks.  The conservation efforts have led to decreased human activity and impact to the sensitive ecological community up there, but some traditions never completely die.  Party Rock is a dry place, even when there's not a drought.  All of the plant species are highly drought tolerant species, particularly on the rock face where it gets blistering hot in the summertime.  As you slide up the slope and into the woods, the granite dome gives way to a beautiful grassy, glade-like area that is chock full of all kinds of interesting species, including fire-dependent table mountain pine.  It may be a little foolish to say this, but to an ecologist, because of the naturally droughty conditions and the species makeup, the site almost screams, "Light me!"  These granite domes are perfect natural fire communities because they are exposed and often get struck by lightning, which does occasionally trigger low intensity fires that usually self-control because of humidity and natural fire breaks provided by the wide, exposed rock faces.  Obviously, in the case of this fire, lightning was not an issue.  A campfire, improperly extinguished cigarette, or (God forbid) arson are the only possible causes.  In such a fire-tolerant/dependent area, it doesn't take much to get an inferno raging.  Compound that with the already dry conditions of the surrounding forest, all it took was some flying embers or hot debris rolling down the rock face and burning around the rock perimeter to turn this blaze into what may end up being a 6,000 plus-acre fire.
The dome of Party Rock consists of frequent spikemoss mats, grasses , and stunted trees.
The view's not half bad either.
So the burning question (I know...bad pun) is what happens to the forest now?  Additionally, what are the positives and negatives?  Some have even asked what happens to all the wildlife and how are they coping?  Some of the answers I will offer up may be offensive to some readers, and that's okay because I'm a big boy and can handle criticism if I'm being too blunt, but I don't believe in sugar-coating things for the sake of not offending someone, especially if I'm speaking the truth. Some of my answers may be speculative, but are based on facts and knowledge of what has occurred and what we know about fire in our part of the country.

Something that must be said here is that nature is not the warm, fuzzy world or entity (Mother Nature) that has so often been portrayed by Disney and Hollywood; an image that has shaped generations of nature lovers to the detriment of the natural world.  I don't believe in "Mother Nature" because mothers are nourishing and loving, and the natural world is none of those.  The natural world, outside of our human perspective is a cruel, chaotic place that is always in motion and change is a constant part of it.  Death is a part of life as is growth and renewal.  The natural world is about survival at any cost, and those who don't or can't adapt to change in the environment don't survive, and we would do well to remember that.  We cannot try to associate our human emotions and feelings to other living things, because we live contradictory to nature and our survival and coping mechanisms are different from other living things.  One of my favorite short books that explains this in very simple terms is There's a Hair in My Dirt: A Worm's Story by Gary Larson, author of the comic strip The Far Side.  It's a hilarious book that sheds a great deal of light on ecological interactions and the part human's play.  I encourage you to check it out.

Now that you know where I stand regarding the emotional aspect of natural events, let's explore the good things about this fire.  As I've already said, our forests here in Hickory Nut Gorge have been overdue for a good burn.  All the right conditions were in place.  All the pictures on social media showing raging flames and glowing rims of fire (many of which were taken at night to capture the glow and enhanced through post-processing) paint a picture of utter disaster and catastrophe.  A picture is worth a thousand words if you're looking for a great story, but what if the picture tells the wrong story?  The thing is we're not seeing mass forest devastation.  We're not seeing burning conflagrations that decimate acres and acres of tall trees.  This fire is behaving as it should under the extreme circumstances we currently have, as a typical ground fire in the eastern deciduous forest.  Sure it's big and no one alive from this area has ever seen anything on this scale in this part of the country, but it's behaving as you would expect under the conditions that are present.  It is removing vast amounts of fuel from the ground.  It is taking out standing dead snags that pose hazards to other living trees.  The fire is opening up ground and providing a medium for regeneration.
Notice how clean the forest floor is after being burned.
Consider that Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the few places in North Carolina where the federally endangered white irisette (Sisyrinchium dichotomum) grows.  White irisette, while not necessarily a fire-dependent species, is a disturbance dependent plant and does not grow where there is thick leaf litter or undergrowth.  Newly exposed ground will offer a place for white irisette to set seed and should allow populations to increase in size.  Other rare plant species such as sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata) will likely see similar benefits due to the reduction of competing plants and removal of leaf litter.
White irisette (Sisyrinchium dichotomum)
Expect to see an explosion of new seedlings, particularly hardshell nut species such as hickories, whose nuts have thick hulls that don't burn easily.  Even acorns, scarified by heat, will germinate and cover the forest floor with tiny oak seedlings.  Fire tolerant table mountain pine and shortleaf pine will replace thinner barked, hot-burning Virginia pine, creating a more diverse forest community.  Hopefully many of the early successional species will take a backseat to the species that are meant to dominate the forest.

Here's an interesting bit of information.  Would you believe that the forest is already recovering?  If you look at the mountain in the areas where fire has already burned from a vantage point such as the Lake Lure Beach, you will not see a charred moonscape.  You see a covering of fall color.  Red, yellow, and orange can be found in every area of the mountain.  The full canopy remains in place and it's impossible to tell there was a fire except where you see smoke.  Already, leaves are dropping off the trees (that's what they do in autumn) and covering the ash-covered, charred ground, providing a protective insulating layer that will lock the freed carbon into the soil and reduce erosion (in the off-chance that it rains between now and next year) as the forest heals.  Areas where the fire burned hotter, may take a little longer to show signs of recovery, but by spring of next year it will be hard to find signs of a catastrophic fire unless you know what to look for.
Notice the leaves are already covering the burned ground.  Fall color still abounds.
The affect on trees, particularly larger trees appears to be minimal.  There are a few with scorched bark, but when I explored some of the already burned area, I saw very few exposed root crowns which means most of these trees should be in good shape.  Because the trees were already drought stressed and it's fall, sap levels are down which keeps trees from heating up on the inside, boiling the sap, and ultimately killing the trees.  The thicker barked trees are well-protected from fire.  There is some smoke damage in the understory where heat and smoke has cooked leaves on lower branches, but most will recover by dropping dead branches and compartmentalizing any damaged areas.  Trees have a remarkable way of coping with fire.  This is not to say that there will be trees that won't die.  There will be some mortality, but you will have to be in the woods to see it, not viewing the forest from viewpoints, and many of the trees that die will re-sprout and regenerate from their root crowns.  By spring, expect a green covering that will be no different from any other year.  Fall colors next year, if we get some rain in the next few months, should be awesome thanks to the added nutrients that will be taken up by the trees.  My prediction is that spring wildflowers will be awesome due to the carbon input and the reduced duff and litter layer.  After the Double H and Judes' Gap fires, the following year you couldn't even tell that those areas burned unless you knew what to look for.  That should be reassuring to those who are worried about the beauty of our area.  We aren't turning into a moonscape, and remember that not everything has burned.  Fires jump from place to place based on where the wind takes them, so there will be patches of forest that just simply did not burn.

Here you can see the scorched trunks of trees as the fire ran rapidly through the forest.
The ground under almost everything in this picture has burned, yet the beauty remains.
Of course with everything, there are always negative aspects as well.  The biggest negative I see with this fire is the exceptional number of exotic invasive species that will try to colonize the area, particularly areas where fire intensity was greatest.  In places where fire gets really hot, it impacts the soil to a degree that native species can't easily colonize,  making it easier for more adaptable invasive species to occupy those spaces quickly.  Fire always creates a surge in invasive species.  After the Double H Fire in 2008, the southeastern side of Chimney Rock Mountain saw a huge surge in princesstree stems, requiring significant resources to remove.  Kudzu patches scattered within the burned area will be burned back to nothing, but will be back with a vengeance.  Tree-of-heaven populations impacted will vigorously return.  Invasive species will be a management issue for land managers for years to come, and it's important that they be managed or we risk losing the integrity of the affected natural communities.

Another negative I see has more to do with the sheer size of the fire.  There's a reason why prescribed burns are done on a small scale.  It's a whole lot easier to manage resources on small areas than large areas.  Land management after the fire is going to involve making sure burned areas aren't suffering extensive erosion.  There will also be new fuel that will build-up due to mortality of trees and shrubs.  Because it covers such a large area, it will be difficult to pay particularly close attention to resource management issues when they arise, because many of them will not be known about due to the remoteness of many of the sites.

Of course, from a human standpoint, there are a lot of negatives based on the lost economic opportunities, inconveniences and disruption of our every day lives, the sheer number of man hours required to contain the fire, and the belief that our beautiful area will never be the same again.  That negative perception and narrative needs to be turned around so that people understand the benefits, despite the losses, and that the ecological and aesthetical impacts will be minimal.

As far as the impact to wildlife, it's a bit of a toss-up question.  Are wildlife species affected?  Certainly, but to what degree.  Even while the fire was raging, firefighters were seeing deer and turkey foraging in both burned and unburned areas.  A forest service guy told me that he watched an owl in a tree, hanging out in the smoke.  The owl had his eyes on a rabbit that was wondering around just outside the fire line.  The man said he never saw where the rabbit went, but as far as he knew the owl didn't get him.  The point is, fire is something that wildlife instinctively know how to deal with.  Large critters are very mobile, so they can move to escape the fire.  A lot of their food, normally covered by leaf litter, is now exposed, making it easier to find.  Most animals are opportunistic when it comes to home selection, so they aren't really refugees.  Some larger animals such as coyote and bears may struggle a little bit as they wait on some of their prey animals to return to the area and may take opportunities to find easier meals in our backyards, but they will cope and they will survive.  Those that don't...well, that's the cruelty of nature.  Nature is an impartial judge if you want to think of it in those terms.  Smaller animals such as reptiles and amphibians find refuge in holes in the ground, cracks in rocks, and in trees, well above the heat of the fire.  Birds of course will just fly away, but will come back.  Most ground nesting migratory birds have already left for the winter anyway, so they will not be impacted.  Some animals do succumb to smoke inhalation, but it's not a wide-scale problem, anymore than it is for us humans who suffer from all the smoke in the air right now.  Do these events cause stress, absolutely, but again the ability to cope with stress is a survival mechanism.

For those wondering what to do if you see "abandoned" wildlife, particularly bear cubs and deer fawns.  Please leave them alone.  Their mothers are probably actively looking for them and you cannot provide those animals with the things they need.  If you see an injured animal, call the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and follow their directions, but otherwise leave the animals alone.  DO NOT FEED wildlife!  You will be creating a problem for yourself and others.

I've already written way more than I intended, but I feel it's important to reassure people that things that often seem bad often work out for the overall good.  If anything can be taken away from this post, it should be these things:
         1)  Fire is good for the forest.  It needed to burn and will be healthier because of it.
         2)  Within a very short time, recovery and regeneration will take place.  In fact, it's already
         3)  Impacts to our furry and feathered friends, while very real and stressful, are survivable and
              will have no lasting affects.
         4)  Our beautiful mountains will still be beautiful after this is all said and done and the smoke 
              clears.  It will not be a moonscape, nor will it look like a bomb went off. 

I hope anyone reading this finds it informative and reassuring.  Now go and tell a firefighter how much you appreciate them.

For more photos of the Party Rock Fire check out my photo album on Flickr by clicking the link:

Until Next Time!