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!