Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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Fire Management at Carolina Sandhills NWR

Prescribed burn. Credit: USFWS

Prescribed burn. Credit: USFWS




Fire management at Carolina Sandhills NWR...
A key aspect of the Carolina Sandhills NWR is its role as a demonstration project for the protection and enhancement of the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem that covers much of the Refuge. Fire is one of their most important management tools. Prescribed burning is conducted several times each year on different portions of the Refuge.

This mimics the natural fires that historically burned through longleaf pine/wiregrass areas on a three to five-year interval. Those natural fires were of low intensity, fueled by grasses and pine litter. The prescribed fires used at Carolina Sandhills NWR suppress the growth of hardwood trees, creating an open park-like situation preferred by the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) and many other animals and plants native to this ecosystem.

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Forest fires can be good!...
Forest fire! The very mention of the word conjures up visions of flames, heat, and destruction to timber, wildlife, and personal property. But fire is a force of nature which can also help the forest. Land managers must understand the critical role forest fire management plays in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

How can fire in a woodland setting be considered good at one time and bad at another? The answer can be found in almost all facets of nature. Most people will agree that rain is good. Without rain, the forest would not be able to grow. The same can be said for sunshine. However, excessive amounts of either of these two elements can be devastating. The same formula applies to fire. The right amount is as necessary to the forest and the animals that live there as are rain and sunshine.

Before humans appeared in the Carolina Sandhills region, wildfires were largely controlled by the climate. As a result, land-based ecosystems adapted to wildfires. In other words, fire was the dominant ecological process for change in the forests. Rather than being a destructive element in the pre-history forests, fire was critical to maintaining healthy forests with a diversity of species.

Prescribed burn. Credit: USFWS

Prescribed burn. Credit: USFWS

For thousands of years, natural fires burned almost unimpeded from the Coastal Plain, through the Sandhills, and into the Piedmont. Lighting strikes were responsible for the first fires; then, beginning 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, Native Americans began to burn the woods to clear agricultural fields or to hunt game. The pine needles, wire grass, and other plants fueled these low-intensity fires that moved slowly across the landscape for days or even weeks at a time, extinguished by a drenching rain or after running into a watercourse.

Today, scientists and land managers are still learning about the beneficial aspects of fire, often using data such as that gathered at Carolina Sandhills NWR.

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Fire Ecology...
In the 1930s, researchers began to challenge the negative notions about fire. They argued that in some regions, fire was an essential element to allow wildlife and forests to thrive. Fire ecology concentrates on the origins of wildland fires and their relationship to the living and nonliving environment. It recognizes that fire is a natural process operating as a component of an ecosystem.

Fire dependence is a key concept of fire ecology. It is based on the idea that fire is an essential element that allows some ecosystems of wildlife and forests to thrive. Some plant species -- including the longleaf pine -- rely on the effects of fire to prepare their surrounding environment for their regeneration and growth. For example, fire prepares the soil for the seeding of the longleaf pine by making nutrients more available, and by reducing competition from other species such as the scrub oak that may absorb needed nutrients or shade out necessary sunlight.

A second concept of fire ecology is the fire environment. Fire is controlled by three factors: fuels, weather, and topography. An area's fire environment is determined by the interactions of climate conditions, the types of fuels available, and ignition sources. Together these conditions determine the frequency and intensity of fires, and the amount of fuel consumed and fire size. The frequency of wildfires depends on ignition sources and weather conditions which may help a fire spread. The intensity depends on the quantity of fuel available and how easily it will burn. These factors are quite interdependent, and their interaction is influenced by wind, humidity, and topography.

A third concept of fire ecology is fire history -- how often has fire occurred in a given region. Trees actually record fire history. Each year a tree adds a layer of cells, increasing the width of its trunk. You may have seen the cross-section of a tree that has been cut down, and noticed the “rings” which indicate this annual addition of cells. When a fire passes through a forest, some trees are only scorched. This adds a layer of charcoal which is eventually enveloped by a layer of new growth. Over time, these charcoal layers provide a record that scientists can use to determine when and how often fires have occurred.

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Prescribed burns at Carolina Sandhills NWR...

The Carolina Sandhills staff uses fire as a catalyst that promotes changes in the ecosystem. They anticipate the changes that will occur after a prescribed burn, and study the processes that take the ecosystem from one stage to the next. Regular prescribed fires reduce the amount of ground fuels, which means that if a wildfire did occur on the Refuge, it would be less intense and easier to control. Fuel reduction helps prevent crown fires which burn at high intensity and are capable of causing unacceptable change. It is crown fires that we generally think of when we envision an out-of-control forest fire.

Fire also returns valuable nutrients to the soils. Certain pathogens that reduce growth in pines and other species can be controlled or eliminated by the use of prescribed burning. A classic example is brown spot needle blight in the longleaf pine. Once the diseased needles on young pine trees have been consumed by fire, the blight is controlled, and the seedlings can continue to store carbohydrates in their roots.

An area after a prescribed burn, with a roost tree of the red cockaded woodpecker.  Credit: USFWS

An area after a prescribed burn, with a roost tree of the red cockaded woodpecker. Credit: USFWS

In planning a prescribed burn, fire managers on the Refuge write a "prescription" for the fire to be ignited only when certain weather, fuel and moisture conditions occur that will make the fire manageable. The Refuge maintains a complete weather station that collects hourly data including temperature, humidity, wind, fuel moisture, and other climatic factors.

The prescribed fire program at the refuge strives to return the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem to a natural condition, providing suitable habitat for native plant and wildlife communities. Fire is mainly applied in the winter and spring. Winter (dormant season) fires are used to reduce fuel loads of pine needles and oak leaves, and also to keep understory hardwoods at bay. Spring (growing season) fires are used to control taller midstory hardwoods and to prepare the ground for longleaf pine seedlings. Curtailing understory and midstory hardwood growth in longleaf pine habitat is crucial to maintaining the open, park-like environment required by the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Prescribed fires are often set using a helicopter; the aircraft carries a supply of incendiary devices the staff refers to as "ping pong balls." As the balls are dropped from the helicopter small spot fires are started in a tight pattern along a predetermined fire line. This allows for a very predictable and accurate prescribed burn. For smaller prescribed burns, a hand-torch is still used to light the fires.

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Last updated: July 28, 2010