Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fire Effects: Party Rock Fire Aftermath, Part 1

Now that the fire is out and the smoke has settled, I can happily say that things have more or less returned to normal here in Hickory Nut Gorge.  I can't say enough how appreciative we are of all the firefighters and the work they did to protect homes and lives during what has been described as the worst natural disaster for this area since the 1916 Flood.  Over 7,000 acres burned and not a single structure or life was lost.  That's pretty tremendous!  Not only are we thankful to the firefighters but also to all the people who donated food, water, and supplies for all the folks working the fire.  So many firefighters have said that they have never seen such an outpouring of gratitude from any community, so it speaks a lot for our ability to come together in times of crisis and need.

So now that we know that the human community is going to be okay, our attention shifts now to the forest and what will happen next.  How will things recover?  If you read my prior post, you know that my prediction was that everything will be fine.  I stand by that prediction, but now can say with a better degree of certainty what I think will happen in different areas.  One of my goals as we move into the future is to keep attention on the forest and what happens in the aftermath.  I won't tell you that everything is going to be peachy, because even though overall the fire is a positive event for the forest, there will be some negatives and we will highlight some of those as they occur, along with the positives as they occur.  The point is to look at the fire effects objectively.  Some of these effects will be quick.  Others will be more delayed.  My hope is that we can gain a great deal of information that will be helpful as we think about fire in the future and how it can and should be used as a management tool for our forests.  In this post, I plan to take you on a bit of a journey that began on November 26, 2016 and ended on February 18, 2017, at least for the purposes of this writing.  I hope to provide an update on a quarterly basis, highlighting the changes as they occur.  This may be a little long-winded, but bear with me and let the pictures tell the story.

In telling this story, it was very important for me to have a starting point which meant getting on the ground as quickly after the fire as I could.  As I have mentioned in some other writings, this fire was like a big reset button and significantly changed many of the areas that burned.  It was necessary to know what burned areas looked like immediately after burning in order to be able to track change over time, basically serving as a baseline.    I took some photographs prior to November 26th that I used in my previous posts, mainly to provide some reassurance that everything would be alright, and I think I conveyed that message pretty well.

 I began my data gathering mission on November 26, 2016, as fire was still burning in places, starting at the ignition point of Party Rock.  On this particularly beautiful day after Thanksgiving, my buddy Chris and I hiked up the old logging road to Party Rock, viewing the scorched earth with awe, at the same time remarking that not everything was consumed.  Surprisingly, a large number of areas were barely even burned (more about that later).  When we arrived at Party Rock, we got our first real impression of how serious this fire was.  Holes in the ground still smoldered where stumps and roots had burned.  This was the epicenter of the fire that caused so much headache for so many.  The once green spikemoss pads were mostly incinerated.  Where spikemoss had once grown, the soil was charred and soft, like talcum powder.  The whole look of Party Rock was changed.  We walked a short distance along the dome towards the east where we saw more burned spikemoss pads, burned Virginia pines and very little else in terms of vegetation.  There were a few small hickory trees on the lower edge of the granite dome that had burned nearly in two.  Everywhere we looked we could see the path the fire had taken, but amidst all of that destruction, at no point did I feel a sense of alarm or that this was the end for Party Rock or the rest of the forest area that burned. 
Scorched landscape.

Even with smoke in the air, the view was still quite nice.
Fire burned across the entire dome, moving upslope as embers rained down the cliff-face.
A "Before" shot from spring of 2015.
An "After" shot from close to the same location.
Had things burned hot?  Absolutely!  Did it look like a moonscape?  Neil Armstrong would have felt right at home!  However, this is not the impression I want to leave you with.  You see, the granite dome that we call Party Rock has burned before.  This isn't its first rodeo, and quite frankly, it was long overdue for a burn.  The majority of the plants that grow on Party Rock are small and consist of mostly lichens (not technically plants), mosses, spikemosses, and herbaceous species such as grasses and xeriphytes that can easily deal with the hot, dry conditions normally present at Party Rock.  Larger species consist mainly of scrubby shrubs such as winged sumac and small trees that can establish root mats in thin soils such as Virginia pine and eastern red cedar. The Virginia pines that grow on the upper edge of Party Rock were eating up sunlight for other species that may have temporarily disappeared from the site prior to the fire, but have banked their seeds, waiting for the right opportunity to reappear.  Not everything was lost either.  A very large, very old eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginianus) managed to survive without hardly being scorched, as did many other grasses and scrubby pines on the lower cliff face.  Winds were obviously blowing stuff around carrying embers to different areas of the dome, but missing others.  While it looks a bit like a wasteland right now, spring should be interesting.
The "old man" of Party Rock.  This eastern red cedar remains undamaged.

Heat-stressed Virginia pines.
All the organic matter has burned, turning the soil here into powder.  If you plan to visit Party Rock, I want to encourage visitors to stay off of the soil mats and burned areas and only walk on the open rock face in order to reduce erosion and to allow regenerating plants to re-establish themselves.  The area will be extremely sensitive for some time to come.
We moved west across the dome and into the woods where we began a slow but steady trip back up to the ridge road.  As we walked, we made our way through an open, south-facing montane oak-hickory forest that burned moderately hot, fire consuming most of the leaf litter and woody debris in its path.  Most of the living trees as we traveled upslope, being oaks and hickories, showed very little external damage such as bark scorching.  The fire had crept along the ground, driven in multiple directions by winds that blew up the cliff faces as well as down the slope.  The wind activity created an interesting burn patchwork as it caused fire to move and jump in irregular patterns from one side of the mountain to the other, criss-crossing the ridge numerous times, burning with variable intensity.  In many of these areas, tree impacts were just as varied, with some showing absolutely no signs of fire damage, while others have visible signs of damage to the extent that there will likely be mortality.
Moving into the woods, we see areas of mixed fire intensity.
An area of low to moderate intensity, the leaf canopy fell shortly after the fire burned out.

A scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) in peak color, unaffected by the fire.

A burned out stump in an area of moderate intensity fire.
As we walked along, it became quickly obvious that in many areas, the fire impact was very limited.  In many places the fire was so low intensity that you had to look hard to tell that a fire had even passed that way.  This year, our autumn came late, so the color peak was right about the time of the fire, so leaves were still on the trees, hiding what was actually taking place on the ground.  What we were seeing was clear evidence that all was not lost.  All over the ground we saw the tracks of deer and bear that came in almost immediately after the fire passed to eat acorns that had been buried under leaf litter, now exposed and readily available (albeit some were rather crispy).  Several large snags and dead trees had been entirely consumed by the fire, recycling critical nutrients back into the soil. I put my hand down to the ground to measure a huge deer track and discovered that the ground was still quite warm, indicative of soil's insulative qualities and in some cases a sign that layers of litter and duff were still smoldering beneath the actual soil surface.  Up to this point, we had still not come upon anything that hinted of utter devastation and total loss of the forest canopy.
Low intensity burn area in beautiful, open woods.
Lots of hickory nuts all over the ground.
Fire exposes mast such as acorns and hickory nuts, providing a quick food source for browsers.
The soil was still very warm to the touch around this large, undamaged white oak.
Partially burned snags pose a real danger to the unwary hiker.
Fire moved down the hill in this area, burning all the leaf litter.  New leaf fall doesn't cling well to steeper slopes and tends to pile up at the toe of the slope, in gullies and depressions.
As we moved further up the slope we came to a rather unique spot, not because of any fire impacts, but more because of unusual anthropogenic activity.  All around were these unusual piles of rocks.  Some seemed to be very organized in their arrangement, others were more haphazardly piled, as if done in a hurry.  There were probably ten or twelve of these piles.  Each pile was more or less oval shaped and all were close to the same dimensions, but randomly spaced within an area that's probably no larger than about 5,000 square feet.  Each pile, length-wise points northeast to southwest, with the the widths facing southeast on the downhill side and northwest on the uphill side.  I don't know that these piles would have been visible had the fire not burned through the area, but now that they are visible, I am curious as to what the piles are.  Are they possibly graves?  The sizes of each pile would certainly be adequate.  There was no evidence of any old home site in the vicinity so the rocks weren't part of any foundation.  Another possibility that we thought of for the rock piles were shooting positions.  Their shape would have made the piles adequate for hiding behind and offering a stable shooting platform if one were facing down the hill.  They are certainly strategically placed with a wide field of view down the slope.  Whatever they are, the fact that the piles exist is certainly a mystery and a curiosity that might be worth investigating down the road.
Scattered rock piles pose a mystery.
What was the purpose of these rock piles?
Finally, we came out on the ridge road that runs along the crest of Rumbling Bald.  We headed west towards Eagle Rock.  The crest of the mountain is where you can really see the signs of high intensity fire.  It was also possible to see how the wind created some very erratic fire behavior.  It was quite strange to see the road, covered with leaves and no signs of fire, but yet on either side of the road, the ground and surrounding vegetation were burned.  I asked Marshall Ellis, the Mountains District Biologist for NC State Parks and expert on fire ecology about this and he said the unusual effect had everything to do with the way the wind was blowing the flames up the slope and that these jumps were typical of what you would see on a ridgetop fire.  Over the duration of this fire, the main fire line crossed the top of the ridge numerous times, leaving some areas of the crest blackened and others almost entirely unaffected.  There were several places along the crest of the mountain that burned extremely hot, significantly burning rhododendron and mountain laurel, as well as the bases of trees.  A lot of these areas, not only because of the physical damage that occurred, but also because of the intense heat, will probably experience some pretty significant mortality, depending on how susceptible affected species were to the heat as well as how much stress they were already under because of drought.
Due to the nature of the winds, fire burned everything but the road.
Fire burned really hot at this spot along the ridge, turning the rhododendrons into crispy skeletons.
This once mighty tree was damaged so severely that it fell.  It now has new potential as food and habitat.
This part of the ridge known as Pine Top experienced some pretty significant tree damage, particularly the Virginia pines and hemlocks that are located just down the hill on the left side of the road.  Table mountain pines along this ridge should flourish having received enough heat to open their serotinous cones.
As we walked along, it became abundantly clear that the top of the mountain was where most of the damage occurred, at least as far as Rumbling Bald was concerned.  While ground fire was the norm, in areas where there were significant stands of rhododendron, dead hemlocks and snags, fire did run up into the canopy.  Where crown fires or significant heat existed, noticeable blackened areas are visible, even from a distance.  These "halos" are indicative of extreme heat that will likely cause permanent damage and mortality to a large number of the trees in those areas, with death occurring within two to five years.  This doesn't mean that these areas have been negatively impacted.  Rather, it means that they will just change.  These areas are now open, exposed to more sunlight than they have seen in years.  Such gaps create opportunities for increased diversity, select for more fire resistant species, and help maintain genetic resilience.  Suppression of fire does just the opposite, creating homogenized forests that lack diversity and resilience.  Due to the suppression of fire that occurred over much of the last 100 years, we have seen vast changes in the makeup of our forests that includes increases in the number of fire intolerant species and higher densities of trees.  Many species are slowly losing their genetic resilience to fire which can dramatically change the integrity of those natural communities, making them subject to higher species loss and greater negative impacts when fire occurs.  Reintroducing fire to areas that have not burned in a long time increases the risk of non-native invasive species infestations, which are able to quickly take advantage of the increased light and changes that occur within the soil.  Non-native invasive species are the single largest threat to the integrity of our natural communities.

Moving hastily along, we neared the end of our hike along the ridge, easing out onto the northern shoulder of Shumont Mountain and ending our journey at Eagle Rock.  The higher in elevation we traveled the more intensely burned areas we saw and the less leaf coverage there was, as the leaves above 3,000 feet had mostly already fallen, many before the fire even began.
Federally endangered white irisette normally grows on this burned slope.  We won't know until spring how well the seed bank survived.  The soil got really hot here, burning the organic matter in the soil.  This area will require frequent monitoring to guard against invasive species.
Even after burning, this little spot had a subtle beauty worthy of a photograph.
Approaching the outcroppings of Eagle Rock, the shape of the mountain with its large promontories causes significant updrafts that create windy conditions around the outcroppings.  This area got scorched pretty hard, significantly damaging some trees and topkilling the rhododendron.
We made our way over to Eagle Rock where the view is always impressive, even though fire still burned in the valley below.  Due to the wind currents that blew around the large outcroppings, most of the trees were pretty cooked.  Even some of the fire-tolerant table mountain pines were burned so badly that they were likely topkilled at the very least, perhaps mortally wounded.  Fortunately, most of the damaged trees had cones which opened during the fire, releasing seed and ensuring that future generations of table mountain pine will continue to exist here.  Table mountain pine is an extremely durable species that grows in very inhospitable places.  It is an important component of bouldery pine-oak-heath communities.  This is where our adventure concluded, ending on a high note as what once was a raging inferno was drawing to a welcome conclusion.
Even as fire continued to burn in places in the valley below, the view from Eagle Rock was still amazing.
If you look closely, it's possible to see the blackened rim of the nearest rock face.  As wind blew up the slope, it pushed flames up into the thick rhododendron thickets and up into the canopy, burning most of the trees.  The pine-oak-heath forests that line these ridges are meant to burn and their resiliency, despite mortality of individual trees will ensure that these communities continue to thrive.
The snag in the middle of the frame has been standing at Eagle Rock for years.  How it survived the fire I can't explain.
Eagle Rock is surrounded by table mountain pine, an extremely durable, resilient species.  The serotinous cones open when exposed to temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit.  Several cones at Eagle Rock got hot enough to open, releasing seed and ensuring survival of the species in this location.
After the November trip, it was January before I made it to Rumbling Bald again, when I was invited to participate in a fire walk led by James Ledgerwood, our illustrious Park Superintendent, and Marshall Ellis.  This was my first opportunity to see the lower slopes of the mountain below the ignition source at Party Rock.  Our group walked the loop trail from the parking area up to the boulder field near the cliff face.  We had 78 people attend the hike, all interested in seeing the fire impacts on the forest.  We walked through mountain laurel patches that had been topkilled.  We looked at trees that had seen fire before, clearly scarred, many of which saw their last.  As we got closer to the cliff faces we went from an area that burned moderately hot to an area that didn't burn at all.  Once again, we saw the random nature of fire and how easily it skips around from place to place, carried by wind, intensity being based on the amount of ignitable fuel.
Mountain laurel, topkilled by intense heat, will regenerate from root crowns, providing young shoots that will be browsed by whitetail deer.  These shrubs will be greatly reduced to a more appropriate size that will allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, promoting greater species diversity.
Some areas of the forest just simply don't burn as well as others.  Patches of forest that have a more dense herb layer, with less shrubs tend to have less ignitable fuel, so they tend to burn with much lower intensity.
Fire burned pretty hot around these tulip poplar trees.  These trees may not survive their injuries.
In many areas, falling leaves re-ignited leaving very little on the forest floor.  In steeper areas, the remaining leaves that fell settled in depressions, gullies, and ravines as seen here in this photo.
The great news, after all is said and done, is that despite the changes that have occurred, overall forest health should be improved, at least for a while.  The burned area over the next few years should experience increased species diversity.  While there will be delayed mortality for a large number of trees, it will generally be un-noticeable from a distance.  We can expect the canopy to green up as usual come spring, and the extra nutrients returned to the soil from burned woody fuels should give us a fantastic wildflower display.  As I have already said, non-native invasive species will be a big problem, but it will be a year or two before we really know how big the problem is going to be, and it will take an intensive effort on the part of land managers to locate infestations and conduct control responses.  It is important to point out, that if the forest sits for too many years after this fire without burning again, conditions will not improve and the forest will continue to lose its resilience as it pertains to fire response.

Many have voiced concerns about the animals, and as I said in my previous post, the animals instinctively know how to deal with fire.  Most of the larger animals just moved out of the way.  Some of the smaller and slower animals such as turtles, salamanders, and many invertebrates probably took a hit, but the overall species impact should be low.  Individual mortality is certain within certain species but specific populations should remain intact.

As I bring this post to a close, I do want to report that as of February, we are seeing positive signs of regeneration.  Many south-facing slopes are already showing signs of new growth as the seed bank is beginning to germinate.  What is most exciting to me is that in one area of low intensity fire, I have already seen white irisette seedlings coming up out of the burned soil.  This is super exciting and reassures me that things will be fine, despite the resource management challenges that await.
Seedlings of something (likely chickweed) coming up on the burned roadside along Hwy 64/74A
Some type of aster regenerating from its root crown.
Little-sweet-betsy trillium (Trillium cuneatum) coming up near the bouldering area at Rumbling Bald.  Tread lightly and stay on trails so that we can protect the things that will be coming up in the burned areas.
White irisette (Sisyrinchium dichotomum) seedling, coming up in a lightly burned area below the cliffs of Rumbling Bald.  This federally endangered species relies on disturbance for its survival.  Please be mindful of plants like these by staying off burned areas and staying on trails. 
As spring comes on, I look forward to making more forays into the areas impacted by the fire to further explore the impacts of the Party Rock Fire.  The more information we can gather from impacted natural communities, the better we can understand how those communities respond to fire and what will need to be done in the future to protect these natural communities.  If you want to see more pictures of the aftermath of the Party Rock Fire, please click on the link below which will take you to my Flickr album.  Hopefully, I will have a whole lot more to report in my next quarterly report.

Until Next Time!

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