Natural resources students analyze Dick’s Creek fire site

WCU natural resources students conducting research for their capstone course – (from left) Alex Percival, Ben Wirtel, Brandon Fritz and Andrew Cornelius – measure the amount of leaf litter and duff that was consumed during the Dick’s Creek fire.

Students from Western Carolina University’s Natural Resource Conservation and Management Program are compiling and analyzing data they collected at the site of a wildfire that scorched part of the Dick’s Creek drainage area near Dillsboro last fall.

Twenty-three students in a spring capstone course have been focusing their attention on four post-fire aspects of the ecosystem – forest composition, wildlife habitat, soil and water, said Peter Bates, associate professor in the program.

The Dick’s Creek fire, which burned more than 700 acres, was part of a spate of drought-fueled wildfires that plagued Western North Carolina during late fall. The Dick’s Creek fire was the closest major woodland blaze to the WCU campus.

“Every year, we want our students to have a chance to work on a real natural resource management problem,” Bates said. “Given the fall fire season that we had and the proximity of the Dick’s Creek fire, we thought this would provide a good opportunity to study the potential effects of the fire. The students draw on things they’ve learned throughout the curriculum, so it is a good test.”

The students separated into smaller groups to work on all aspects of the project including the four focus areas, equipment needs, geo-spatial mapping and preparation of the final report. “Faculty members monitored what was done, but it was very much a student project,” Bates said.

Forty permanent plots on national forest land were established in the burn area from which to gather data. The students documented the conditions that exist at the plots now and developed a plan for monitoring the plots to determine the fire’s evolving effects as time goes by, he said.

The students did a particularly good job in mapping the fire’s severity, which is a function of how hot it burned, Bates said. That factor will be important to consider as the fire’s effects are calculated in future years. Fire severity is determine by examining features such as how much rhododendron and mountain laurel was consumed, measuring how high the char marks are on trees and determining how much ground litter and duff was consumed, he said.

Typically, wildfires move slower and burn less hot when they are moving down a hill, but they move faster and burn hotter when moving uphill. Sometimes, the Dick’s Creek fire turned into a “crown fire” more typical of fires in the arid forests of the American West as it raced up ridges, Bates said.

Data collected by the students will be included in a digital archive that will be available for future reference. Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, N.C. Forest Service and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission collaborated with the students on the project, Bates said.

Many of the students involved in the capstone course are graduating this semester, and that group includes Abbi Farnsworth, a student from Denver, North Carolina. Farnsworth worked on the wildlife habitat portion of the project, which included placing motion-activated cameras in the plots to determine current wildlife activity. The cameras took two still photos and a short video clip if something moved, and the work has included analyzing about 120 day’s worth of camera data, Farnsworth said.

“So far, the most interesting thing we found is that animals like one extreme or the other – they like the high-severity burn areas or the unburned areas, but they don’t like the moderate areas,” she said.

Another of the participating students, Hunter Combs of Wilkesboro, plans to graduate in December. Combs studied the current condition of the soil in the plots – in particular, the water infiltration. After an intense fire, soil can develop water repellency as a result of the burning of leaves with their waxy coating, and that can cause erosion, Combs said.

“The infiltration was extremely variable,” he said. “Erosion didn’t seem to be a problem. The intensely burned sites tended to have a little more erosion, but we didn’t see any extreme erosion or gully formation.”

For more information, contact Bates at 828-227-3914 or bates@wcu.edu.