|The Whipping Creek Road Fire was declared controlled May 23. Photo by Corey Waters/USFWS|
Ed Christopher, a fish and wildlife biologist with our Branch of Habitat Restoration, on the need to plan ahead, especially for wildfires.
The middle of a bona fide emergency is not the best time to formulate a plan. Certainly, some on-the-spot planning is always necessary, but forethought is the crucial key for success in a real emergency. This is especially true when describing wildlfire in the organic soils of eastern North Carolina. Not just knowing who has the knowledge, tools, skills and abilities to manage these wildlfires but establishing solid, well-defined partnerships with those parties must be high priority in planning for the inevitable.
Such was the case with the partnership among the North Carolina Coastal Refuges Complex, the North Carolina Forest Service and the U.S. Air Force in eastern North Carolina. This partnership came out of necessity. Historic, large, long-duration wildfires associated with vast tracts of pocosin habitat and limited local response capacity to respond to wildfire are simple facts of life in eastern North Carolina.
Pocosin is an Algonquin word for “swamp on a hill.” The “hill” is created over time with the deposition of plant materials that decompose and create peat soils. These soils can be as deep as 12 feet or more in some places and depend on staying hydrated to prevent catastrophic loss due to wildfire. If dry, this organic soil is readily consumed by fire, creating a change in the local topography and resulting in significant carbon loss.
The 15,453-acre Whipping Creek Road Fire in April on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Manteo, North Carolina, wasn’t a new occurrence for the refuge. Frequent small fires occur throughout the year, and large, long-duration fires happen every few years. Such large wildfires in the eastern United States typically are multi-jurisdictional, so they require a response from various agencies. In the case of the Whipping Creek Road Fire, the footprint included land managed or owned by the Service, U.S. Air Force, The Nature Conservancy, North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission and private landowners.
|Large fires like the Whipping Creek Road Fire occur every few years at Alligator River Refuge. Photo by Corey Waters/USFWS|
The partnership among these agencies, and especially with the North Carolina Forest Service, stemmed from lessons learned during past wildfires. These wildfires helped build understanding about each other’s processes for wildfire response, as well as developing a relationship before meeting under duress. Although these lessons were learned during difficult circumstances, this foundation proved invaluable during the Whipping Creek Road wildfire response. Payment processes, a command structure, and proper protocols for community evacuations and endangered species fire suppression had already been established. Specific needs had been identified and understood. For example, one special aspect of wildfire response unique to coastal refuges is the avoidance of water with high salinity content to avoid environmental impacts from salt water use. For the Whipping Creek Road Fire, water-scooping aircraft were required to dip out of the freshest water source possible. Having these discussions before the wildfire helped pre-load the state’s Incident Command Team’s operation and management of this wildfire.
Although we cannot fully prepare for emergency response, if we fail to plan, then we plan to fail. Developing partnerships early among those that will be engaged in a natural emergency response will pay dividends by curtailing the amount of time consumed by attempting to figure out the players and processes when everyone is looking for and relying on leadership to bring order out of chaos. So the lesson learned from the latest large fire in the pocosin of eastern North Carolina is that through strong partnerships, we can achieve success.