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!