Sooner or later, the wildfires that have scorched large swaths of the Western North Carolina mountains will be extinguished, and then the burned-over forest land will have the potential to become an outdoor classroom, says Western Carolina University faculty member Peter Bates.
As of Tuesday, Nov. 15, nine wildfires in WNC counties west of Asheville were being monitored by the Southern Area Coordination Center. The center is an interagency collaboration involving 13 southeastern states that serves as the focal point for mobilizing resources during natural disasters and situations such as WNC’s recent rash of wildfires.
The closest major woodland blaze to the WCU campus is located in the Dick’s Creek drainage area about 2 miles northwest of Sylva. That fire started Sunday, Oct. 23, and more than three weeks later was reported by the SACC to be 95 percent contained after burning across 728 acres.
A wildfire is a complex event that can produce results both good and bad for a forest ecosystem, said Bates, an associate professor in WCU’s Natural Resource Conservation and Management Program. The 90 students enrolled in the program take part in classroom discussions about the effects of fire, but those discussions deal primarily with the results of prescribed burning, which is the intentional use of fire as a management tool by forest managers, Bates said.
More data about both prescribed burns and wildfires is needed to determine how their effects differ, he said.
An interesting ingredient to the current WNC fires is that they are occurring during a period of extreme drought, Bates said.
“We are in preliminary discussions with the U.S. Forest Service and brainstorming about making the Dick’s Creek burn the focus of our capstone class next spring,” he said. “We anticipate that students might map the fire, collect baseline fire-severity data, and perhaps develop a post-fire monitoring plan.”
Bates said all wildfires create a “mosaic of effects” across a landscape that reflect variations in many factors such as the initial fuel conditions, fire intensity, topography and forest type.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I would expect fire effects (at the Dick’s Creek site) to range from nothing, since the fire missed some areas, to 100 percent tree mortality where the fire was most intense,” he said. “In most areas, natural forest, shrub and herbaceous regeneration will commence next spring. It would be interesting to study this pattern.”
Research from the past two decades has documented that many forests in the Southern Appalachians burned frequently in the past, Bates said. “Estimates of two fires per decade are not uncommon based on examination of fire scars in trees going back to the 1700s,” he said. “These fires were typically limited to drier sites such as ridges and south- and west-facing slopes. Many coves and northeast-facing slopes did not burn that often.”
Most of those fires were caused by humans – native peoples and early settlers – instead of lightning, Bates said. That pattern of frequent fires was significantly reduced by fire suppression efforts that began in the 1930s, he said.
After the current rash of wildfires across the mountains is over, the visible evidence that they took place will slowly be erased by nature. Charcoal left over from fires can exist in soil for thousands of years, but most casual observers probably will not notice that a fire occurred after three to seven years, even though the plant community could look very different than it did before the fire, Bates said.
For more information about WCU’s Natural Resource Conservation and Management Program, contact Bates at 828-227-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.