RALEIGH, N.C. (Dec. 20, 2011) – It may seem counterintuitive to start a fire to prevent a fire, but that’s exactly what the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is doing on some of its game lands in eastern North Carolina.
The Wildlife Commission, working with the N.C. Forest Service, recently burned about 60 acres on the Pettiford Creek tract of the Croatan Game Land in Carteret County. The area sits close to homes and neighborhoods, and abuts the Croatan National Forest. While it might seem dangerous to burn land near houses, a carefully started and monitored prescribed fire has multiple benefits to plants, animals — and the people living in the neighborhoods.
Regular controlled burning reduces the fuel load — or build-up of grass, leaves, pine straw and other forest debris — preventing wildfire and allowing firefighters to suppress a wildfire much quicker than they would have otherwise.
“We have protected the houses in that area, while we are benefitting wildlife,” said Ken Shughart, a forester with the Wildlife Commission. “Thirty or more acres had never been burned before, and the longleaf ecosystem really benefits from regular prescribed burns.”
In addition to reducing fuel load, controlled burns maintain habitat for protected animal and plant species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher frog, Venus flytrap and rough-leaf loosestrife, which occur in the longleaf pine habitat in and around Pettiford Creek tract.
Shughart said that Commission staff responsible for controlled burns receives extensive training to ensure that they are careful to protect surrounding communities, themselves and the land they are working to restore.
“Fire experts do a great deal of work before the burn,” Shughart said. “They create a burn plan, which includes smoke-management details, fire-control measures, acceptable weather parameters, equipment and personnel needs. The plan also details how the ecosystem will benefit from fire.”
Fire once occurred naturally in eastern North Carolina. Low-intensity fires burned every 3-5 years, fueled by grass, leaves, pine straw and other forest debris. They kept the forest open, allowing sunlight to penetrate to its floor and reducing buildup of dangerous fuel loads. Fire suppression altered the landscape, allowing fuels to accumulate and putting people and communities in jeopardy.
Fire-dependent ecosystems also rely on the sunlit forest floor created by burning to maintain the habitat native to North Carolina. Deer, turkey and songbirds are abundant on the Pettiford Creek tract and surrounding areas.
For additional information on controlled burns, download “Using Fire to Improve Wildlife Habitat,” from the N. C. Cooperative Extension. For more information on the Wildlife Resources Commission, visit www.ncwildlife.org.