Sunday, November 5, 2017

Fire Effects: Party Rock Fire Aftermath, Part 4 (The Final Chapter)

November 5th, 2017 marks the one -year anniversary of the Party Rock Fire, the largest and most expensive natural disaster to impact Hickory Nut Gorge since the 1916 Flood.  I write this post to bring closure to a series of posts that have hopefully been educational and insightful and to maybe not celebrate but to reflect on the significance of the fire and what we have hopefully learned from it.  I will try not to make it too long.

When the Party Rock Fire started on November 5, 2016, I was on my way home from a conference.  I landed in Chicago and was getting ready for the final leg of the journey back to the Asheville Regional Airport.  I called my wife to tell her that we were getting ready to leave and she told me that the mountain near Party Rock was on fire.  Knowing how dry things were at the time, my initial thought was, "That can't be good!"  Of course the more I thought about it, the more I thought well it's been a while since we've had a good burn up there.  It could be a good thing.  Little did I know that what started out as a small fire would turn into a raging inferno that would last for nearly one month.
The first puffs of smoke. (Photo courtesy of Esther Lusk)
As we helplessly watched the mountain burn, the communities of Hickory Nut Gorge banded together to confront the disaster they were faced with, working together, providing comfort and encouragement to those who were risking their lives to fight the fire, as well as those who found themselves homeless in the wake of unexpected evacuation orders.  Amidst the immediate feeling that all was lost, especially given that the fire hit at the peak of leaf season, there were rays of hope that everything would be okay come spring once we had a better understanding of how the impacted forests would recover.  I'm happy to say, we were not disappointed.  With no lives lost, no major injuries, and no loss to homes and businesses, things very quickly bounced back as visitors returned to Hickory Nut Gorge, many to see what things looked like in the aftermath.

As a biologist, it's easy to speculate as to what the natural responses to fire might be, based on research and history, but until you see those natural processes begin to play out, there's a lot of second guessing and uncertainty.  I have tried really hard in my prior posts to point out the benefits of fire in the natural landscape, yet at the same time recognize that there are some not so beneficial aspects as well.  Only time will truly tell us how those things balance out.

Back in September, my son and I, hiked with Ranger Tyson Phillips up on Roundtop Mountain.  Roundtop was the only place that I had not had a chance to visit post-fire and it was a very important stop.  As most people will remember, things went from bad to worse on November 11, 2016, when the fire turned west and was burning on three sides of Rumbling Bald and heading towards Chimney Rock Village.  Everyone remembers the huge plumes of black smoke as the fire started racing up the steep ravines on the north side of Roundtop, and it was shortly thereafter that mandatory evacuation began, as well as what we will call the fight for Chimney Rock Village.  Fortunately, through the actions of the heroic firefighters, the village was spared, but the carnage on the north side of Roundtop was astounding.
The black skeletons of trees, burned during the fire.
Dead table mountain pines along the ridge at Roundtop.
The fire moved with amazing speed and intensity up the slopes of Roundtop, fueled by deep thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel that had grown way larger than they naturally should have, as well as the dead remains of large hemlock trees killed by hemlock woolly adelgid.  Flames probably extended 20 to 50 feet in the air at times as entire trees caught on fire.  Roundtop was the place where the fire burned the most intense over the entire burn area.  There was intense crown fire here, destroying large numbers of trees.  The ground burned below the surface, consuming stumps and burning the duff, heating and fracturing large rocks.  Roundtop Mountain would not have been a desirable place to be on November 11, 2016.

Of course as we hiked along this ridge, despite the intensity and destruction of the fire, signs of life abounded and reminded us of the resilience of nature.  All around, sprouting and regeneration was occurring as new life came from the roots of the mortally damaged trees.  Table mountain pine seedlings were everywhere, replacing their parent trees which were mostly destroyed.
Table mountain pine seedlings.
A table mountain pine seedling beside an open cone.
Sassafras seedlings were everywhere in the wake of the fire.
As we walked towards the summit of Roundtop, much of the fire seemed to have abated as it got closer to the actual top of the mountain (the fire crossed the mountain at a place known as Haircomb Gap, which lies between Cedar Knob and Roundtop).  Perhaps this was due to some old road beds up there that may have acted as fire breaks, or perhaps the fire just ran out of consumable fuel, or some combination of factors.  Either way, the summit was spared.  We ate lunch at the top, enjoyed the view and headed back down the mountain.
The view from Roundtop Mountain.
Of course I couldn't end the report without giving a final update on Party Rock, the place where all this started.  Other than dead trees, Party Rock looks very much like it did before the fire.  So much has returned to normal there.  On November 3, 2017, I led the Lake Lure Classical Academy Horticulture Class on a field trip to Party Rock, giving the students an introduction to fire ecology and an understanding of how fire affects the landscape.  I thought it would be appropriate to show the comparison from immediately after the fire to now.
Party Rock, November 25, 2016
Party Rock, April 14, 2017
Party Rock, June 6, 2017
Party Rock, July 5, 2017
Party Rock, Nov 3, 2017
Now of course these pictures weren't taken from exactly the same spot, as you can tell from the photo, but I think it's pretty obvious from the photos that Party Rock is a vibrant thriving site.  For other photos of what it looked like earlier in the year when everything was green, check out my previous posts.  Here are some other shots:
Heavy clumps of broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) dominate many of the soil mats.
LLCA students eating lunch and taking in the view from Party Rock.
Grasses and sumac cover what was once a blackened soil mat.
Almost 4 months of growth for these invasive princesstree seedlings.
The upper area of the dome where most of the Virginia pines have died, replaced by princesstree.
One of the things that was quite astounding to see was the unbelievable growth of the princesstree (Paulownia tomentosa) seedlings.  In early July, these seedlings were very small, most with only two leaves.  Now these seedlings are anywhere from 1 to 3 feet in height and there are thousands of them.  This is one of the greatest challenges in dealing with a large scale fire.  Invasive species quickly take advantage of the open soil and diminished canopy coverage, asserting themselves over the native species.  If these trees aren't eliminated, they will dominate the area, reducing native biodiversity.

Now that we have had a year to truly ponder the Party Rock Fire, my hope is that we now have a different perspective on fire.  Fire is a natural component in the landscape of Hickory Nut Gorge.  Its occurrence predated man and it will continue as long as this Earth does.  Fires will continue to be a challenge into the future.  Our landscape has changed as well as the land use and such use has removed fire as a variable, changing the way we view fire and the way we respond to it.  The possibilities of more fires will persist in this area for a long time to come due to the amount of tree damage that occurred with this fire.  As more people use the Rumbling Bald side of Chimney Rock State Park and Buffalo Creek Park, the possibilities of accidental fires increase.  That is a harsh reality that we must face.  That's not saying that we will have significant large-scale fires all the time, but the frequency will increase, and as a result, we need to understand how we contribute to the frequency and severity of fire.  Properly managing forest land is the key to preventing catastophic fire.

Hopefully, as a faithful reader of my pontification, you may have been able to get an appreciation of the natural way of things and how fire affects natural landscapes.  My hope is that we won't forget.  That we will continue to study, learn, and understand that our role is to be stewards of the earth.  To know that every action we take has an impact.  I'm not saying that to preach, but rather to encourage everyone to understand what our role is on this planet and that our connection is deeper than being the primary consumer of its resources.  I hope everyone has enjoyed the series on Fire Effects, as well as the pictures.  I look forward to the next source of inspiration.  Check out the Flickr page for more pics and insight.

Until Next Time!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fire Effects: Party Rock Fire Aftermath, Part 3

Almost eight months have passed (as I write this) since the Party Rock Fire.  As time has passed, we saw the mountain turn green again as spring came.  Now summer is here and fire scars are apparent around outcroppings and along ridges where flames ran high and hot, driven by upslope breezes.  As the fire burned, many worried that the beauty of Rumbling Bald and connecting mountaintops would be permanently devastated and that the impacts to the community would be long-lasting, but those concerns were quickly allayed as we saw the wildflowers bloom in the spring and the tourists returned en masse, many interested in seeing the aftermath of the most devastating natural disaster to hit Hickory Nut Gorge since the 1916 Flood.

Since the fire, I have taken it upon myself to photo document as many post-fire effects as possible, in order to learn as much as I can about fire behavior and forest response in an area that has been largely un-impacted by catastrophic fire over the last century.  That’s not to say that we haven’t had fire in the Gorge before, but in terms of any sort of regularity, fire has been largely suppressed in the overall landscape of Hickory Nut Gorge.  This is partly due to the fact that the topography and forest makeup of the Gorge does not often lend itself to frequent fires and prescribed fires are very difficult to control in an area that has so many steep cliffs, outcroppings, and ravines.  Additionally, as the land has become more and more developed, the opportunities for conducting prescribed burns have decreased.  This does not mean that our forests won’t burn, as we well know they will, but conditions have to be just right to get the right kind of fire to be effective and landowners have to be open to fire in their backyard.

As I visit different areas where fire burned, I see varying effects.  The brown areas on the mountain that you see from down in the valley are dead, burned trees.  Underneath those brown patches, you can start to see green as regeneration is occurring, with seemingly dead trees producing sucker sprouts from root crowns (a process known as coppicing) and numerous herbaceous species starting to appear.  The effect is similar to what you would see after a forest has been clearcut, where new growth in the form of multiple stems come up from the cut stumps.  The only difference here is that the tree skeletons remain until they fall or are cut down.  Some of the most successful species that I am seeing right now in terms of regeneration are sassafras (Sassafras albidum), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), and black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
Sassafras sprouts.
Sourwood sprouts around a charred tree.

Regeneration around a dead black gum.
One of the most incredible fire responses that I have seen across the majority of forest types is the coverage of ferns.  Typically ferns don’t dominate the forest floor, but post-fire the fern diversity appears to have increased and species' size and densities have increased, covering the forest floor  where other species would typically dominate.  This appears to hold true with other herbaceous species as well, given that I've seen spiderworts (Tradescantia sp.) and fire pink (Silene virginica) with larger than normal blooms and taller than normal heights.   Light gaps created where trees are dying or have already succumbed to their wounds are creating clearings where grasses and other forbs can establish, increasing biodiveristy until trees have a chance to re-colonize and close the canopy again.
Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) covers the forest floor in dry forest near ridgetops.
Another interesting response is the changes in the shrub layer.  The fire had a huge impact on mountain laurel and rhododendron.  Mountain laurel has largely responded by starting to regenerate from their root crowns, but the large rhododendrons did not fair so well and are mostly dead.  This is because many of these individuals have lived way longer than was naturally intended, and the species as a whole has increased its presence in the natural communities it inhabits .  Rhododendron has come to dominate some of these natural communities, growing large and creating vast amounts of shade, but as a result of their overwhelming presence, they have reduced diversity because there has been no significant fire to keep them in check and maintain a normal growth form. 

On my last few excursions up the mountain, I have been very interested in what's going on at Party Rock; the place where it all started.  The reason for this is because it was the point of origin, but also because of its successional nature as a plant community.  Party Rock, before the fire, was an area covered with vegetated mats that were inhabited by mostly spikemoss and a few grasses, with occasional other species scattered around in the deeper mats.  On the upper slope of Party Rock, Virginia pine saplings grew in the thin soil.  During the fire almost every sprig of vegetation was consumed, leaving a blackened moonscape.  The only trees remaining were a few red cedars that somehow managed to escape the main part of the fire.  Today, if you visit Party Rock, it no longer looks like a moonscape.  Almost all of the soil mats have new vegetation.  Much of the spikemoss is gone, most of it completely consumed in flames, but it has been replaced by numerous grasses and other herbaceous species that before only maintained small populations.  Now Party Rock is green and lush.  A normally dry place, recent rains and the increased plant diversity have made some areas of Party Rock almost boggy, which is something that I’ve never seen up there.  Party Rock is normally a very dry environment.  While what we’re observing up there is mostly not unexpected, it’s so cool to see these expected responses play out, but on a scale that could not have been anticipated.
Twisted-hair spikemoss (Selaginella tortipila) is beginning to come back to Party Rock.

Roundleaf fameflower (Talinum teretifolium) is an interesting succulent that occurs at Party Rock.
Much of the blackened soil is disappearing as new vegetation slowly fills in the gaps.
Numerous forbs are slowly filling in the gaps on the exposed soil mats.
What was the occasional species occurrence now dominates with the loss of the spikemoss.
A sea of green.
More green.
Sumac (Rhus sp.) is a shrub that responds particularly well to fire and is quite beneficial to many different bird species.
Curtiss' milkwort (Polygala curtissii) went from a minor species to a dominant species at Party Rock.
Certain images make it appear as though no fire ever occurred here.
Grasses such as broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) are re-appearing in this succesional habitat.
More regenerating spikemoss where it had previously burned up.
Another area that I thought was really intriguing was a small glade on the east side of the mountain just above a rock face.  Glades are transitional areas that are often found between granite domes and woodlands and are usually dominated by grasses.  Glades also are often home to the occasional shrub such as indigobush (Amorpha sp.) and rare species such as yellow honeysuckle (Lonicera flava) which I found at this particular site.  Transitional zones are prime habitat for lots of different species, so seeing the response of these forest glades post-fire will perhaps be an indicator of what we will see in other transitional zones.  There's a really nice glade on the east side of Cedar Knob that I would love to visit.  The fire burned really hot there, so it would be really interesting to see how that area is responding. 
Grasses are the dominant species in this glade near an east-facing granite dome on Rumbling Bald.
This is not to say that there aren’t negative impacts.  Already we are seeing invasions of non-native invasive species such as princesstree, tree-of-heaven, and oriental bittersweet.  Again, this was an expected consequence, but it is one of those discouraging realities that land managers will have to grapple with for years to come.  A prediction I made shortly after the fire was that there would likely be new scattered populations of oriental bittersweet in places we haven't seen it before, and unfortunately that prediction seems to be coming true.  Birds are the primary dispersal mechanism for bittersweet seeds, and they have been depositing these seeds in the soils of Hickory Nut Gorge for several years now in Hickory Nut Gorge as bittersweet expands its western North Carolina infestation from its point of introduction in the Asheville area.  Bittersweet has been present in Hickory Nut Gorge for many years now, but our thick forest canopies have mostly helped restrict its growth.  Bittersweet loves disturbed areas, particularly light gaps and will often lie in wait for the perfect opportunity to germinate.  Fire provided the needed light gaps and removed the litter layer in many places, providing the necessary ingredients for successful germination.   In a sunny environment, bittersweet wreaks havoc on native species by climbing into the canopies of trees, much like kudzu.  However, bittersweet is really worse than kudzu due to its high seed viability, ability to easily form monocultures, and general vitality.  Unlike kudzu which can be quite manageable with the right resources, bittersweet is much more difficult to control once it gets well established.  This species and others will present some difficult challenges in the years ahead.
Princesstree seedlings are already establishing in many burned places and pose the biggest near-term management challenge
 There are a lot of dead trees out there and more will die.  Already many trees are experiencing fungal growth on their trunks and around their root crowns.  Many of these trees have leaves on them, but their canopies are sparse, so death is right around the corner.  In the short-term, as mortality occurs it will increase the amount of available fuel for future fires, create more light gaps for invasive species establishment, and allow for re-colonization of some less desirable, fire-intolerant species such as red maple and yellow poplar.  While maples and poplars certainly have their place in eastern forests, there role as secondary associate species has been elevated due to changes in soil moisture and lack of regeneration in dominant species, primarily oaks.  This is being widely attributed to fire suppression, poor forest management practices, and global climate change, particularly in montane oak-hickory and pine-oak-heath forest types.
Many trees in this spot are dead or dying, providing much needed light to a clean forest floor.
This is a transition zone between high and medium intensity fire where tree mortality is a little lower.
Fungal growth on the outer bark of trees is a sure sign of mortality.
A beautiful clearing where the forest transitions from an open light gap back to closed understory.
For land managers it will be imperative to try to conduct periodic prescribed fires in the future where possible.  In many cases this will simply not be feasible, but that does not lessen the importance or the need.  For communities and citizens of the Gorge, being firewise and understanding the role of fire in the environment will go a long way towards improving the health of our forests, as we seek to manage fire hazards and control invasive species on private property, particularly in the area we refer to as the urban/wildland interface.  The important thing is that we never forget that the risk of fire is ever present and that it is a natural dynamic in the landscape.  Understanding that concept is key to making wise decisions that protect property, lives, and keep our forests healthy.  

To see more post-fire pictures from Party Rock and other areas of Rumbling Bald, check out my photo album on Flickr by clicking on the link:

Until Next Time!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Fire Effects: Party Rock Fire Aftermath, Part 2

Spring has finally arrived in Hickory Nut Gorge, after an unusually warm winter, followed by an unusually cool March.  The mountain are slowly greening up and wildflowers are blooming.  Tourists are once again flocking to Lake Lure and Chimney Rock to see the natural beauty of the area.  As we went through the winter months following the fire, there was a lot of speculation as to whether or not things would ever be the same after seeing the "devastation" as the fire raged through the month of November.  Hopefully the things you will see in this post will provide some much needed good news that I hope readers of this post will share.  So let's get started shall we?

On Good Friday, April 14th, my wife and I decided to make the trek along the spine of Rumbling Bald from Eagle Rock to Party Rock and down to Lake Lure.  The plan was to retrace (more or less) the hike that I made in November, as the Party Rock Fire was winding down, but in reverse.  Chasitty has never hiked across Rumbling Bald but was certainly up for the challenge and excited to accompany me on an adventure that she has heard me talk about quite often but has never been able to participate in until now.

We dropped a car off at the end of the trail up to Party Rock and drove up the Gorge to the Eagle Rock access point off of Shumont Road, where we left my truck.  Now it's important to state here that even though spring officially arrived in March, nature is on its own timetable and it doesn't arrive all at once.  Spring begins in the valley floor and on low elevation, sunny slopes, slowly creeping up the mountains as temperatures warm.  Spring usually arrives at the highest elevations of the Gorge by early May, when you get full canopy leaf-out.  At almost 3,500 feet where we were, spring was just starting to arrive, with spring ephemerals starting to bloom and buds on trees just beginning to pop.  In the valley, many of the early spring ephemerals were already finished and canopy trees were fully clothed in their green apparel.
The sea of green creeps up the mountain sides.  Notice that Shumont, the highest peak, has still not quite leafed out.
The hike along the ridge of Rumbling Bald is not an easy hike.  It requires careful footwork and for one to be in reasonably good physical condition.  It's roughly 3.5 miles from Eagle Rock to the end of the trail on the Lake Lure side.  On this trip we took about 0.5 miles off the trip by bushwhacking, but I don't recommend that for anyone unfamiliar with the mountain, as it's a great way to get lost or hurt.

Because Chasitty has been to Eagle Rock and we were just there back in February, we opted to not visit on this trip.  Given that it's only April and given the intensity of the fire around Eagle Rock, I did not anticipate any obvious signs of recovery this early in the year.  I may visit it again in May, just to give things a little more time.  Hiking the ridge is a most of a day affair, so our plan was to keep moving, stopping only for short recovery breaks, snacks, and to get pictures and document fire recovery.

From Eagle Rock to the top of the first hill, there's a 100 foot or so elevation gain before you start down hill for a little ways.  As we crested the hill, we came to the first area that I wanted to get some shots.  The Ridge of Rumbling Bald burned pretty hot over most of its length so it was nice to see some recovery in the understory as spring wildflowers were popping up everywhere.  We saw little-sweet-betsy trillium (Trillium cuneatum), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), chickweed (Stellaria pubera), violets, and squawroot (Conopholis americana) in flower.  Other species were popping up and will be flowering by the time I finish this post.  As I thought about what things looked like back in November, blackened ground and burned tree bases, it was quite a different picture on this particular day.
No more black earth and green starting to appear on the forest floor.
 Thanks to recent rains there was a wet seep that was running across the old jeep trail.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of different species of salamander.  There are approximately 320 species of salamander worldwide and the Southern Appalachians have 32 of them.  Salamanders are important environmental quality indicators, so when we see them, it's a good thing.  Salamanders are also among the wildlife species that tend to take a big hit when wildfires occur because they move very slowly and just can't easily retreat from advancing flames. 
Spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus)
Northern dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus)
As we continued down the old road we came to a severely eroded area of the trail.  Years and years of off-road vehicle use without proper maintenance, have contributed to severe washes and gullies in the road bed that continuously erode after each rain.  The western end of the road was used as a fire break to slow the advance of the fire.  A dozer was used to improve access during the fire, but little work was done to repair the road after the fire, resulting in some pretty severe washing.
Good best management practices and maintenance can prevent this type of problem.
We continued further along the road, losing some elevation as we moved, but moving into a section along the ridge where fire was burning really hot.  All along the sides of the road and along the shoulders of the narrow ridge were crispy rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets.  On these ridges, because of thin soil and close proximity to rock, trees don't grow particularly tall, most no more than 20 feet in height, so a lot of these trees were damaged in the fire and this is where we will see the most mortality in the next few years as these trees succumb to their injuries.
You can see how high the flames ran up these trees.
Stump holes are a big hazard when you get off trail.
This area was mostly small, spindly vegetation, most of which was consumed.
After walking downhill for a ways, we began to climb once again to the first ridgetop summit along the backbone of the mountain.  From this vantage point we were able to get a good look at the areas impacted by the fire on the north side of Roundtop Mountain and below Cedar Knob.  As everyone probably well remembers, on the day of the Chimney Rock Village evacuation, great plumes of black smoke went billowing up as the fire accelerated up the draws and ravines leading to Haircomb Gap.  Upslope winds funneled the fire through these ravines, dominated by vast rhododendron thickets, pine forests, and once magnificent hemlock forests, recently decimated by hemlock woolly adelgid.
When we walked this in November, there was still a lot of smoke in the air and a lot of the burned areas were not quite as obvious because the leaf canopy was still on in many places.  Now that spring is creeping up the mountain, those areas most affected are quite obvious, appearing as dark brown or black scars on the mountain, amidst the sea of green.  In many of these areas, the fire burned through the litter layer, exposing long hidden rocky outcroppings.  Recovery in these areas will not be as immediate as in areas that did not burn quite as hot.  This is very similar to what some areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park look like after the Gatlinburg Fire.
Damaged areas strongly contrast with the greening canopy.
Moving on down the trail we came to an area that got pretty hot during the fire that was on my priority list to check out.  This particular area of interest is where one of the white irisette populations grows.  As you may remember from previous posts, white irisette (Sisyrinchium dichotomum) is a federally endangered species.  White irisette is one of a number of species referred to as blue-eyed grass.  Typically blue-eyed grass has a small, six-petaled flower that is light blue or lavender.  White irisette has smaller, white flowers and the tips of the petals recurve backwards.  At the time of flowering, the flowering stems are dichotomously branched.  While all members of the genus Sisyrinchium are found in disturbed areas, white irisette is the only one that has an endangered status.  Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the strongholds for this plant, as it relies on certain levels of disturbance to maintain its populations.  Too much and the wrong kind of disturbance can severely jeopardize populations, but disturbance such as fire can often be a good thing.  The question I had was did the soil get too hot for the plants in some of the badly burned areas where soil temperatures got really warm and organic matter ignited?  Fortunately I didn't have a lot to worry about.  As you can see from the following photos, things are regenerating pretty well.
Over twenty different species have emerged on this one bank.
When I first started looking I didn't see any white irisette, and then...
...there it was.  I counted around 12 plants in this one sample area.
I'm sure my wife got tired of me telling her how excited I was, but when you've spent as much time as I have up there counting little plants that look a whole lot like any other grass on the mountain, only to have some natural disaster come and destroy everything, well let me tell you, it's pretty exciting.  My enthusiasm only grew as we saw more and more species.  For the sake of time, I decided it was better to keep moving because we weren't even halfway across the mountain yet.
Turk's-cap lily (Lilium superbum)
Early-blue violet (Viola palmata)
Trilliums and other herbaceous plants popping up from the burnt soil.
As we continued to walk along the road, we could see the meandering nature of the fire path as it moved across the ridgeline.  I can only imagine what it looked like as flames burned on both sides of the trail, sometimes forming flaming arches overhead as they rose to 15-foot heights in places.  With each step, we moved towards spring, with more and more green along the shoulders of the ridge.  Eventually we came out on the highest ridge on Rumbling Bald, known to some as Pine Top.  Pine Top has a nice, healthy population of table mountain pines.  As I said before, the ridgetops were among the hottest burning places in the total fire acreage, and things got pretty torched at Pine Top.  Fortunately, it appears that most of the table mountain pines lived to fight another day and all of their cones are open, which means the temperatures during the fire were hot enough to do their job, allowing the pines to drop seed.  I didn't see any pine germination yet, but I also didn't spend a lot of time poking around there either.  We sat down on a rocky ledge and had a snack before starting again.
A greening forest floor.
Approaching the highest point on Rumbling Bald.
Panoramic view from our lunch spot.  Fire scars strongly contrast with the green canopy as spring creeps up the mountain.
Checking my backtrail on Pine Top.
After a quick water and snack break, we resumed our hike, going downhill once again towards the last hump along the ridge before taking things off the beaten path.  All around we were becoming more and more surrounded by positive signs of recovery.  As elevation decreased, more and more species were appearing.  Many species really seemed to be very positively impacted by the fire, some of which I would have not thought would like fire that much.  One of those species was showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis).  Now granted, I've not been on Rumbling Bald during April before, so I don't have a real reference point to gauge this statement on, but never in one place have I ever seen so many showy orchis in one place.  I don't know if they were just more obvious because of the litter layer being burned away, or if the fire created optimal conditions for these plants to bloom.  Either way, they were everywhere.  I didn't have to look for them like I do in most places or just happen to stumble over them.  So if indeed this is a positive response to fire, I am happy to report it.  Otherwise Rumbling Bald has the largest population of showy orchis I have ever seen in Hickory Nut Gorge.
Showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis)
One of the prettiest showy orchis that I have ever seen.
We continued our downward ascent, with more and more species either in flower or starting to emerge.  We saw striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) which grows in a few scattered locations in Hickory Nut Gorge, mostly on higher elevation, north-facing slopes.  Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum) was starting to bloom as well as golden alexanders (Zizia trifoliata) and mountain bellwort (Uvularia puberula).  In addition to the normally abundant little sweet Betsy trillium (Trillium cuneatum), we saw numerous, dainty, mostly white Catesby's trillium (Trillium catesbaei), a trillium that is highly variable in form and in color.  Most typically turn pink as they age and the ones we were seeing had just opened, probably no more than a day or so before we showed up to observe them.  Seeing so much growth on the forest floor was almost enough to make you forget there was a fire, especially the farther east we went. 
Green hillside.
Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum)
Golden alexanders (Zizia trifoliata)
Mountain bellwort (Uvularia puberula)
Seeing all the green almost makes you forget there was a fire.
We finally came to the point in the trail where the bushwhacking would begin.  Bushwhacking is of course a very loose term in this context because there were no bushes or any whacking involved.  The woods on the south-facing slopes of Rumbling Bald are very open.  My goal was to as closely as possible re-trace (in reverse) our previous track from November.  Since we didn't use a GPS to establish a track on our first hike, it was all purely guesswork.  I knew the general direction I needed to go to get to Party Rock so that's the way we went.  At least it was all downhill.  By now much of the leaf litter that hadn't been blown off the slope has been packed down sufficiently and is mostly hidden by new plant growth.  On some of the steeper slopes, we were continuously having to check our feet as we dodged precarious surface rocks that had been exposed.  Some places were almost like a scree field, making walking quite difficult.  Of course the farther down the hill we went, the more sure I was that we were not exactly following the original route (details, details), but I at least knew we were going in the right direction because I could see openings in the distance that usually are an indicator of oblivion if you step off the edge.

In our meanderings, I kept looking for the rock piles that Chris and I saw on our November trip but I realized that I started us down the slope in the wrong spot so we missed them.  However, we did find more rock piles which are still as mysterious as ever, although we have a new hypothesis about why they are there.  One possibility that needs more exploration is that these rocks were piled purposely for removal from the mountain.  Perhaps someone was using the rock down in the valley for rock walls or foundations.  I will continue to investigate this in an attempt to solve the mystery.

More mysterious rock piles.
After further contemplating the mystery of the rock piles, Chasitty and I descended down into a draw where we found the spring source for the intermittent stream that occasionally flows to the west of Party Rock.  We also found something even more exciting.  In 1996, a biodiversity inventory was conducted in Hickory Nut Gorge and Rumbling Bald was designated as a site of national significance due to its species richness.  One of the species identified at Rumbling Bald was a neat little wildlfower called eastern shootingstar (Dodecatheon meadia).  I have always wanted to know where the Rumbling Bald population was because I knew the species from Chimney Rock, where it occurs on the north and east-facing slopes growing on mafic seeps.  As it turns out, I found it and did it ever make the trip worthwhile.  Eastern shootingstar is one of the rare plants of Hickory Nut Gorge and grows in basic soils, usually near seepages or wet rock faces over mafic rock.  The top of Rumbling Bald has a large sheet of amphibolite overlaying the henderson gneiss that forms the domes and cliffs that we see throughout the Gorge.  Amphibolite is a calcium-rich rock that provides the needed alkalinity in the soil for rare plant species such as shootingstar, spreading rockcress (Arabis patens), and white irisette to survive.  I don't know how large this shootingstar population was before the fire, but there were hundreds of plants.  Some were well-established plants that have been there a while and were blooming.  Others were new seedlings.  I have never seen this plant in such abundance, so my hope is that this is another species that was given a significant advantage by the fire.
The beginning of the intermittent stream that flows by Party Rock.
Eastern shootingstar (Dodecatheon meadia)
Eastern shootingstar (Dodecatheon meadia)
The whole top of this wet outcropping was covered with eastern shootingstar.
We worked our way down the stream until we came to a steep slide with water gently cascading down it.  All around signs of fire were evident, but new life was present amidst the destruction.  We encountered more wildflowers such as crested dwarf iris (Iris cristata), fairy wand (Chamaelirium luteum), and yellow-star grass (Hypoxis hirsutus).  We crossed the stream to avoid the steep climb alongside the slide and followed a short ridge back down to the stream where we would cross to get to Party Rock.  There we found one of the prettiest pink azaleas (Rhododendron periclymenoides) I have seen.  Pink azalea or pinxter flower as it is also called, is a native rhododendron found throughout most of North Carolina, but it is an infrequent occurrence in Hickory Nut Gorge, found mostly off the Escarpment and down in the valleys of the Gorge, mainly on the east side of Lake Lure.  It does occasionally pop up on the west side of the lake, but it's usually on a south or east-facing slope and is often near a stream, as was the case here.  Given that fire burned all around this particular azalea, I was pleasantly surprised that it survived.  Proof that resilience is a nice trait to have in the natural world.
Crested dwarf iris (Iris cristata)
Fairy wand (Chamaelirium luteum)
Pink azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides)
Pink azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides)
Passing through a gap in the trees we stepped onto the northwestern corner of the granitic dome known as Party Rock, the place where the fire started.  We were greeted by the welcome color of green on what was not so long ago scorched and black.  The signs of fire are obviously still there, as recovery on an already sparsely vegetated landscape doesn't happen overnight, but things were looking pretty good.
Seeing green on the blackened soil mats was a welcome sight.
We meandered our way across the dome, trying to avoid walking on the sensitive soil mats, where already rain and wind has worked hard to move and remove soil, after being left somewhat destabilized where the vegetation burned.  As we made our way through the maze of burned trees, picking our way between the soil mats, we started seeing seas of green and lavender waves of Canada toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis) blowing in the breeze.  In a few places dwarf dandelion (Krigia virginica) was starting to colonize alongside the toadflax.  A few unidentified grasses were also starting to pop up in a few spots, but it was the toadflax that stole the show on this day.
Canada toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis)
A much different look than what we saw immediately after the fire.
Some soil mats may take some time to re-vegetate.
More Canada toadflax.
After traveling all this way, we sat down on Party Rock and enjoyed the view, taking in the recovery that we were seeing, clearly understanding that nature is always changing.  As a species, we as humans don't generally deal well with change and our initial response when we see a burned landscape is to think, "Oh, how sad," or that "Everything is devastated!"  A better way to look at it is that it is merely changed and change is always occurring in nature.  With that change there will be positive and negative aspects that will require intensive study and documentation.  There is a great deal we will be able to learn from this fire that will be of great value to land managers.  As I surveyed the scene before me, I could not help but shed a silent tear of joy, with the knowledge that all is not lost and that the mountain is recovering.  
The view to the southeast from Party Rock.
The view to the southwest from Party Rock
Skeletons of small trees still remain on the cliff edge of Party Rock.
Panoramic view from Party Rock
We started down the last mile or so of trail (what I like to refer to as the hard part) which is one of the hardest downhill sections of trail anywhere.  By the time you reach this last leg, your knees and ankles are already screaming, so it becomes an uncomfortable challenge.  Tired and worn-out, neither of us said much as we came down the mountain.  We just plodded along, endeavoring to just get off the mountain...not because we wanted to, but because we were just tired, hungry, and overwhelmed from a day of physical and mental stimulation that culminated with one of the best views in the southeastern United States.

As a final parting thought, while this fire was an economically devastating event when it occurred, it was an inevitability.  Fire is part of the natural landscape and conditions were optimal for this fire to occur.  Sooner or later, a fire would have occurred here or some other area of the Gorge and this will not be the last wildfire that we will see in this area.  This should serve as proof that while fire does bring death and destruction, it also gives life and renewal.  From a distance, unless you look really hard, you would never know a fire burned on the mountain.  The mountain is green and things look as beautiful as they always have.  If you don't believe me, come and see for yourself.  Sure there are some visible scars, but they make up only a small percent of the actual burned area and do very little to detract from the amazing beauty of the mountain.  While you're here make sure and visit our local shops, restaurants, hotels, and attractions.  Things are very much alive in Hickory Nut Gorge.  I will have another report this summer.  Here's a parting shot of what we look like right now.  Also, don't forget to check out my updated Party Rock Fire photo album by clicking on the link below, so that you can compare and contrast the change over time.

Until Next Time!